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From The Socialist newspaper, 15 September 2010

Fighting oppression in Kazakhstan

AS PART of a delegation by the European United Left (GUE/NGL) in the European parliament, Joe Higgins, Socialist Party MEP recently visited Kazakhstan to meet with independent trade union activists, human rights defenders, journalists, ex-prisoners and political activists and people from the social movements. Tanja Niemeier reports.

HUGE BILLBOARDS of Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazerbayev are displayed on the road between the newly built capital city Astana and the mining area Karaganda, 200 kilometres south of Astana. They show the president surrounded by happy looking people. The billboards seem to portray the image of a widely popular "leader of the nation". Nothing could be further from the truth.

In June 2010, a law was passed that essentially turns Nazerbayev into president for life. The same law forbids any criticism of the president and members of his family. Disgracefully, this law was passed while Kazakhstan chaired the OSCE (the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), an international organisation that claims to defend and monitor democratic rights. However, according to OSCE sources, no official criticism of this law was made by any of the 56 member states of the OSCE.

Nazerbayev has ruled Kazakhstan for the past 20 years and receives Stalinist-type election results of 91% support, which subsequently leaves Nazerbayev's party as the only party in the parliament. These results were not only questioned by the opposition but also by international monitoring organisations. This has turned the country into a very difficult climate for oppositionists.

Vadim Kuramshin, a well respected lawyer and human rights activist was arrested two days before our first meeting in Karaganda where he wanted to give evidence of the humiliating conditions prisoners face. [Vadim was released from prison in Kokshetau, in the north of Kazakhstan only hours after Joe's delegation left the country.]

The prisons in Kazakhstan are overcrowded. In August, self-inflicted mass cuttings of wrists and stomachs took place in a prison in the Karaganda region in protest against the barbaric conditions of the prison regime which they face day in and day out.

The authorities are obviously frightened that the truth travels around the world and that is why Vadim Kuramshin was arrested.

"If this government does not even grant the basic democratic and workers' rights to its population, then it is not surprising that they treat prisoners in this disgraceful way", reports an activist of Kazakhstan 2012, a political movement that tries to unite the different protest and social movements across the country.

Dedicated fighters

One of the priorities for Kazakhstan 2012 is the building of independent trade unions that can effectively defend the interests of working class and poor people in the country. Most of the official trade unions are remnants of the old Stalinist state unions and are in the pockets of the government, others are company based and very often controlled if not set up by management itself.

Families of miners, scientific researchers, medical workers, oil workers, railway workers - some of whom spent 44 hours on the train to meet with us - spoke about explosions in the mines that leave workers dead or injured due to the lack of health and safety rules.

Despite the repressive character of the regime, we met dedicated fighters who want to see change in the country and are determined not to bow to the regime.

There is also a widespread understanding of the corruption of the regime and the fact that the huge wealth of the country is handed over to big multinational companies while people live in dire economic circumstances.

It seems that it would not take much to spark a major movement across the country. "We will need to fight until we become bosses in our own home again", said another activist from Kazakhstan 2012 who thanked Joe for coming and listening to the ordinary people of the country.

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