Kazakhstan miners fight government austerity

March 8, 1995

MOSCOW — During the first years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the general view was that Kazakhstan — a large Asian republic that stretches from the Volga river to China — represented one of the more fortunate parts of the former USSR. Industry in Kazakhstan had suffered much less from the disintegration of the old economic relationships than, for example, industry in Ukraine.

For a considerable time, the Kazakh leadership refrained from risky experiments in the field of privatisation. This helped ensure that the decline of output would be relatively moderate. The foreign investment picture was also less chaotic than in other former Soviet republics.

Price controls in Kazakhstan began to be lifted in 1992, but government leaders were not convinced of the virtues of "shock therapy". Initially, they continued to hope for the restoration in one form or another of the Soviet Union — Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbaev spoke of a "Eurasian Union" — and of the traditional economic relations.

It was only after the October 1993 events in Moscow that the government of Kazakhstan decided that reform on the Russian model was unavoidable.

The old Supreme Soviet was dissolved, and elections for a new parliament — accompanied by scandalous breaches of electoral laws and falsification of voting tallies — were held in March 1994.

International observers noted clear cases of faked results in districts where well-known opposition figures were on the ballot. Such people included socialist leader Yermukhamet Yertysbaev, who enjoyed active support among miners in the large Karaganda coalfield in north-central Kazakhstan.

As the country's newspapers admitted, the new parliament was transformed into a subsidiary of the executive. In the course of a year the parliament adopted 11 new laws submitted by the government, and only one introduced on the initiative of the deputies. This law was promptly blocked by a presidential veto.

The introduction of a new currency, the tenge (among the population the new banknotes quickly acquired the name "Nazarbucks"), was accompanied by a further weakening of ties with neighbouring republics and by a shift to monetarism in financial policy. Privatisation of state property then began.

The results of these policies were soon felt. Another sharp decline occurred in the economy, unemployment increased, the fall in living standards accelerated, and the crisis of inter-enterprise debts intensified. As in other countries of the former Soviet bloc, monetarist anti-inflation programs brought about a rapid increase in inflation.

The decline in industrial output, which in 1992 and 1993 had been 13% a year, reached 29.6% in 1994. The price charged to consumers of natural gas increased by 21 times in 1992; in the first half of 1994 it grew by 53 times. Apartment rents in 1993 increased by 10 times, and in the first nine months of 1994 by 22 times.

As in Russia, the authorities tried to restrain price rises by delaying the payment of wages. More than 900 enterprises, employing a total of some 350,000 people, came to a halt. A further 170 enterprises began working short time. A total of 125,000 people were sent on forced leave, most of them without any pay.

The minimum wage now stands at US$5 a month, or one-sixth of the official subsistence minimum income. The government has been forced by lack of money to halt the payment of unemployment benefits and to shut down public works programs. While demanding that the government step up the pace of reform, Western experts have stated cold-bloodedly: "The economy is dying".

Working people responded with a wave of strikes and protest actions. As in Ukraine and Russia, the most experienced and organised sector of the workers in Kazakhstan has been coal miners.

In 1989 the Karaganda coalfield was one of the centres of the huge miners' strike that helped doom the Gorbachev regime. At that time the Karaganda miners were not among the first to go out, but they were the last to resume work. In elections in 1990 Yertysbaev and a number of miners' leaders won parliamentary seats. In the elections of 1994 they won again, but fraud prevented them from taking their seats in the new parliament.

On January 13, the miners of Karaganda and Ekibastuz began an indefinite strike against the neo-liberal reforms. Around 100,000 mineworkers walked out, demanding payment of wages overdue since the autumn.

In the words of Vladimir Karpov, Karaganda leader of the Independent Union of Coal Industry Workers, "The strike was inevitable. People had nothing to live on, and to send them down to the coal-face was dangerous."

When miners were starving, to demand normal work from them was impossible. This was recognised both by mine managements and by the government, which instructed mine directors to carry out regular medical examinations of workers to determine their fitness for work. "We're amazed by the way we're managing to survive", observed Karaganda miners' leader Vyacheslav Sidorov.

As in Russia, money was found to pay the miners after the strike began and the danger arose that metallurgical plants would have to be shut down. A proportion of the strikers then returned to work. Various demands, however, remained unfulfilled, and workers at many pits remained out.

Those who gave their support to the strikers included numerous deputies of the new parliament, who sent letters of protest to the government. Public criticisms of the authorities came not only from leftists, but also from sections of the "moderate opposition" such as the People's Congress Party, headed by Olzhas Suleimenov.

On February 8, after more than three weeks, miners' leaders called for a return to work. "We came to the conclusion that the strike was ineffective, as the government had not reacted so far", a Reuters report quoted Sidorov as saying.

The conflict, however, is far from exhausted. Both the government and the miners appreciate that the survival of the Karaganda coalfield, along with much of the rest of Kazakhstan's industry, is at stake. The authorities are not about to abandon the policies that have brought the country's economy to the verge of collapse. Consequently, the government will not be able to avoid new clashes.

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