The violence that took the lives of at least 14 people in Kazakhstan these past few days is nothing short of disastrous – for the families of the victims and for those who run this country.
The rioting may not have been entirely predictable or preventable. But it was surely possible to have avoided so many deaths.
Friday’s rioting in the isolated western oil town of Zhanaozen was an explosion after months and months of peaceful protest by men and women on the main square that had gotten them nowhere.
They had lost their jobs with state oil company KazMunaiGas for a strike action found illegal by the courts, but they wanted to keep their dignity. Protest, as far as they were concerned, was the only means possible.
It seems neither the workers nor KazMunaiGas was able to hold meaningful talks. NGOs like Human Rights Watch expressed concern that there was no fair legal mechanism to resolve the dispute.
Instead of dialogue, there are signs the authorities simply wanted to get rid of them. Intimidation tactics ranged from jailing lawyers to beatings to murdering those who sympathised with the protesters.
Kazakhstan has attempted these past few years to portray itself as the success story of Central Asia. It looks likely to enjoy six per cent yearly growth until 2014 and strong foreign direct investment. All-important credit agencies S&P and Fitch just boosted its ratings – the highest now in the CIS. It had promised to introduce democratic reforms.
But this incident – which took place as the country was supposed to be celebrating its 20 years of independence from the former Soviet Union, has done tremendous damage to the country’s image.
PR is something the Kazakh elite is obsessed with. That’s why Tony Blair, famous for employing all manner of spin doctors, has been hired to help them.
The authorities have implied that exiled opposition figures may have played a hand in orchestrating the violence. But this does not excuse the ease with which they used such lethal force.
On Friday, as state TV was broadcasting a celebratory “look how far we’ve come” since independence, the response emanating from Zhanaozen as police opened fire was: “not very far”.