Chevron, Turkey, and Kazakh Nationalism: How will the Tengiz Riots be Used Politically?
Kazakhs and Turks fighting at the Tengiz oilfield site
Reports from the Tengiz oilfield suggest that what started as a personal brawl between three Turks (from Turkey) and a Kazakh (all workers for Tengizchevroil) quickly developed into an inter-ethnic/international riot on Friday. While the initial Reuters report only mentions that ten people were injured in generic “riots,” Kazakhstani sources quickly provide much more detail (and numerous rumors), characterizing the resulting riot as a “pogrom” against Turks and other foreigners. Furthermore, according to the prosecutor’s office of Atyrau Oblast’, approximately 140 people were injured during the fighting and at least eight have been hospitalized with serious, but not life-threatening, injuries.
While Tengizchevroil reports that the riots are now “under control,” this incident is symptomatic of increasingly tense relations between the ethnic Kazakh population and foreign business interests in Kazakhstan. As comments to the zonakz.net story about the riots suggest, the Kazakhs’ animosity towards businessmen and workers from Turkey has been growing since Turks first began arriving in Kazakhstan in the early 1990s. Many Kazakhs have long felt that the Turks act paternalistically towards them and take advantage of them economically. While these emotions likely played an important role in the disorder at Tengiz on Friday, the incident cannot be attributed to Kazakh-Turkish relations alone. Reports from Tengiz, for example, suggest that the attacks on Turks Friday spiraled into violence against foreign workers in general. Indeed, there is growing frustration among the ethnic Kazakh working class of Kazakhstan as the standard of living in the country improves and life becomes more expensive. For the ethnic Kazakh working class, it is particularly frustrating to see foreigners living better and supervising their work in what is now proclaimed as a Kazakh nation-state. While these workers may be receiving better pay for working in Chevron’s Tengiz oilfields and Lakshmi Mittal’s steel factory in Temirtau than they did working under Russian tutelage in Soviet factories, they also expect more now that they live in an independent Kazakhstan.
In addition, the ongoing political machinations around presidential succession in Kazakhstan have been spawning new political strategies focused on populist concerns, and these strategies have inevitably begun to focus on the Kazakh working class, especially those employed by foreign companies. Already Dariga Nazarbayeva has taken on the issue of workers’ salaries and safety at Mittal’s Steel factory in Temirtau, and her latest article attacking Mittal came out in the Karavan newspaper Friday as the violence was erupting at Tengiz. In this most recent article, Ms. Nazarbayeva says that Kazakhstan must “stop acting like an obeying colony, kneeling before a foreign gentleman from the ‘Forbes’ list (of the world’s richest people).”
The incident at the Chevron worksite could obviously fit in well with this sort of populist/nationalist rhetoric. The question is who will be the target of nationalist and populist political attacks around the events that took place at Tengiz on Friday? Will it be the Turks and foreign guest workers, or will it be the Americans and other foreign companies involved in the oil industry? Furthermore, who will control the populist/nationalist message about the Tengiz riots? Will it continue to be Dariga, or will the left-wing of the opposition, Tuyakbay’s Social Democratic Party, become more prominent in supporting the rights of native Kazakh workers? Or, will the events at Tengiz be highlighted in the platform of the new party of local businessmen expected to be formed in the near future by Yerzhan Dosmukhamedov, who has also showed an interest in the rights of steel workers in Temirtau? Finally, will any of the political forces in Kazakhstan carry the populist and Kazakh nationalist message further and utilize the twentieth anniversary of the Kazakh student protests in December 1986 as a rallying point for a new Kazakh nationalist political movement? Whatever the political significance of the violence at Tengiz this Friday, it is apparent that Kazakh nationalism is entering a new era of political importance, and this will cause at least some uneasiness for citizens who are not ethnically Kazakh as well as for foreign investors, businessmen, and workers in Kazakhstan into the near future.