Web-conference of a journalist Yelena Kostyuchenko with the participants of the Facebook group called 'Zhanaozen'

On the 27th of January, 2012, the group, dedicated to the tragedy in Zhanaozen, hosted Yelena Kostyuchenko's web conference.  

You can see the unamended transcript of the discussion at the link: http://www.facebook.com/groups/zhanaozen/.  Editor's notes are marked with the letters "PR" .  In the text, the name Yelena Kostyuchenko has been abreviated to the initials: EK.

Elena Kostyuchenko: Good day to all. First of all, I want to say that I am very happy that this group was established. The Obtaining and distribution of any information about what happened and is happening in Zhanaozen is the most important thing that one can do right now. Thank you, you're great lads. Now the answers - in order of the receipt of questions.

Tore Beketuly Murat:

  1. The names of some corrupt officials both from among the Akims (city mayors) and the structure of the 'KazMunayGaz” were mentioned. The next day, the mechanisms of "lobbying" on their part were started and the General Prosecutor's Office began to undertake 'a payback' [reactive actions – E.P]. And all this is happening in light of the fact that the Ambassador of Kazakhstan announced and disclosed their names to the U.S. Congress. Could you take control of the investigation of the crimes of these corrupt officials into your own hands as one of the independent media representatives in Russia, since in Kazakhstan, as you know, there is no independent official media. Thank you.
  2. Could Russian media appeal to international bodies regarding the holding of open trials of representatives of various Kazakh media who were arrested?
  3. Are you and other Russian media representatives planning to visit Zhanaozen after the state of emergency is called off?
  4. Could you make your influential, foreign colleagues of the pen interested in the proceedings related to the Zhanaozen events?
  5. Could you carry out an independent investigation on what Orak Sarbopeev, the Akim of the city of Zhanaozen is doing right now in Russia? Who invited him?

EK:

1. Yes, I will try, to the best of my ability, to monitor the consequences of the Zhanaozen shooting. Unfortunately, I have only recently become engaged in Kazakhstan as a journalist and I don't know much about your information resources, especially because some part of the information and user comments are written in Kazakh. I would be very grateful if you 'throw' me links in private messages. In case of urgent news (on arrests, deaths, breakthroughs in the investigation of the proceedings on shooting) – please call my mobile: +79067219364. In Kazakhstan there is a representative office of the "Novaya Gazeta" newspaper. But, in my opinion, it works poorly.

2. The Russian media, unfortunately, have no special powers when it comes to appealing to official agencies. Moreover, the statements of individual citizens are considered even more carefully. But I know that before the New Year, representatives of the Human Rights Watch visited Zhanaozen. Now they are preparing a report on this trip. After publication it will probably be sent to the Kazakh official agencies and international bodies for consideration and response, as well as other HRW reports.

3. I really want to come back to Zhanaozen. I will strive to be sent for a business trip there. But I doubt if I would be allowed to get back into Kazakhstan.

4. After publishing the article I was approached by several foreign journalists for advice. I provided advice to them. As far as I know, some of them are going to go to Zhanaozen. I'd be happy if they succeed.

5. I have not had this information about the akim before. I'll try to learn something. But possibilities are limited - I do not even know his cell phone number, I only have his work phone number. Russian authorities are reluctant to give comments to the 'Novaya Gazeta'.

Tolesh Orazaliev:

  1. What do you think about the opinion that Putin supports Nazarbaev because of the negative reaction of the West to the results of parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan?
  2. To whom of the candidates would you give your vote during the presidential elections in Russia?
  3. How long has the issue of Kazakhstan been lying within the circle of your interests?
  4. What would happen if a similar shooting of citizens occurred in Russia?
  5. Were you at the Bolotnaya Square?
  6. Will you provide coverage of the rally in Almaty on the 28th of January, 2012, detentions, arrests of oppositionists, journalists, social activists?

EK:

1. It's obvious. He cannot condemn the shooting of protesters, as now mass protests in Russia are gaining momentum and so far it is not known what measures Russian authorities would be willing to undertake in order to prevent a revolution. Same thing with the elections - the results of our parliamentary election have been completely rigged, and it is strange in this situation to blame the neighbours for doing the same. Well, we must not forget the economic interests and the oil industry.

2. I still have not decided. Unfortunately, there is no perfect candidate so it is hard to decide. But either option would be better than Putin – this way, the monopoly of power will be broken, and officials will learn to hold on to their seats by winning the approval of the people.

3. I have a friend from your republic, so in some things I have been interested for a long time. As a journalist, I have recently worked on the issues of Kazakhstan for the first time. And this was my first trip to the republic.

4. I thought about it when was in Zhanaozen. If the shooting occurred in Russia, it would be  absolutely impossible to return to a peaceful form of protest. Inevitably, long-term street fighting would begin. And I was absolutely shocked when I heard that on the 17th of December, the day after the shooting, people gathered for a peaceful (!) rally. This is a very high level of self-consciousness and such a high level of strength of spirit; would be impossible in our country.

5. Yes, as a journalist. If the editors had not send me there, I would have gone there as a participant. Literally our entire editorial staff goes to these rallies – some attend them because it's their assignment, others just feel the need to go there. What is happening now is what we have been awaiting for a very long time: a serious consolidated response of a suddenly established civil society to the crimes and indifference of the authorities. In addition, I regularly take part in unsanctioned actions - in defence of freedom of assembly (on the 31st) and of the LGBT-orientation. If I go to the action as a participant, the press ID card I leave at home.

6. No, I cannot come to tomorrow's rally – I am very busy with Russian topics. Also, I do not like working on pre-organised events - rallies, press conferences, etc. But if there are mass arrests, we will, of course, report the news on our website or in a printed issue. And again - I would be grateful for any information.

Lyudmyla Kozlovska: Would you agree to attend a conference at the European Parliament (Brussels), with our support for the hearings on Zhanaozen?

EK: Yes, with great pleasure.

Ruslan Shaimardanov: Yelena, in your article there is a story about Korkelia, a nurse. As I understand, she comes from Zhanaozen. According to her, 23 people have died in her arms, have you had an opportunity to contact her after your articles were issued, and can she now confirm a greater number of fatalities?

EK: No, Korkelia is not a nurse - she lives in the village, she came to visit her sister. On the 16th of December she was taking the wounded and the dead from the square to the hospital and stayed there until the morning to help nurses and to wash the bodies. She confirmed that there were 64 bodies at 9 a.m. on the 17th December. The woman in whose hands 23 people died (21 on the  16th of December) is a surgeon-resuscitator in the hospital, and these people died either immediately or during or after surgery. It is not possible to contact the surgeon right now - I do not have her phone number, so it is only possible to contact her if one goes there in person. Now it is impossible to reach Korkelia by phone, but the HRW staff member has spoken with her sister. Her sister had to report to the Prosecutor's Office, now she is afraid and she asks people not to talk with anyone from her family, including Korkelia. Judging by the official investigation, there is no evidence, you know this. The HRW worker checked the hospital records. For now I cannot disclose the findings - details will be presented in their report.

In order to establish the exact number of fatalities it is necessary to attempt to  to access the information, to work with doctors, junior hospital staff and morgue staff, with the workers from the registrar (to see death certificates), to count and photograph freshly dug graves in the cemetery, to travel around the villages (according to eyewitnesses, if the demonstration was attended by the relatives of the murdered person, they typically carried the body home immediately), and, of course, it is necessary to establish contact with the relatives.

Galim Akulbekov: Is Putin aware of the fact that there is no opposition in the parliament of Kazakhstan?

E. K.: I am sure that Putin is well informed about your internal politics. And he greatly benefits from the fact that there is no opposition in the parliament. As before, there is only one person with whom he has to negotiate, and it is much easier this way.

Roman Achmedov: Has the Zhanaozen tragedy been discussed in Russia? On television, in print or on the street? Among friends and acquaintances? Is Russia for the most part aware of what happened? How do they evaluate these events?

EK: There was a fairly comprehensive coverage in newspapers, on tapes, in the top of the blogosphere. I cannot comment regarding the TV – I don't have a TV set. Are they aware in Russia? They are, but basically, their attitude is: “it didn't happen in our country, so why even discuss that?". Judging by the comments, there are people who approve of the shooting. This issue is one of the top issues only among Russian left wing supporters, but it is very active - in Moscow, there were several rallies in support, there are articles which have been published, the topic is being discussed. But the left wing followers are, in principle, internationalists, so it is not surprising.

Mukhtar Zhumabek: How do you personally assess the situation in Mangistau Province?

EK: I know that since 2005, when the principle of the Trilateral Commission was abolished, there have been some serious labour protests going on there. Apart from Zhanaozen, there is also Karazhanbas, Kalamkas, Zhetybai, Novyye Buzachi. Local law enforcement agencies are behaving very severely towards labour union activists - the arrests,  long prison sentences, beatings. Several people have been killed and in relation to a few other persons,  assassination attempts have been made. Oil companies which operate in the region, do not hesitate to hire thugs to disperse and intimidate the protesting crowd. They put pressure on the families. At the same time, there is very high level of solidarity among the workers - often the staff of one oilfield begin to strike in support of another. The standard of living, especially in small cities and towns, is very low, there is literal poverty among the people, and exorbitant prices - so most people have to live on money borrowed from banks, and this provides a great tool for blackmail which the employers are happy to exploit. Also, in the region there is a very high level of domestic nationalism, which is very dangerous. Therefore, by the way, the whole non-indigenous population, particularly those from the Caucasian republics, support Nazarbayev – in his power they see the guarantee of their physical safety.

I would like to add a few more words about the mood in Zhanaozen now, according to the evidence of the HRW staff. The initial shock and the need to speak out and to be heard is now gone, Zhanaozen has become silent. The wounded, as well as the relatives of the detainees and of the deceased are  ordered to report to the Prosecutor's Office for questioning en masse. Before the questioning, they have to sign a gagging order and they are informed that if they have any conversations with journalists, a criminal case will be initiated against them. Also, the injured and the relatives of the deceased were promised compensation, quite large amounts by local standards. So people are hoping to get it.

So the work now will be difficult. But it is a necessity.

Roman Achmedov:

1. In your opinion, what steps should be undertaken by the society of Kazakhstan, in order to get closer to a true picture of what happened? Are such things as the questioning of witnesses, gathering of all available videos, visits to special forces offices, hospitals, morgues, both in Zhanaozen and in Aktau, documented questioning of the personnel of these institutions, individual work with every police officer who participated in the conflict, transparency in the cases of the suspects and arrested persons as well as the availability of these cases for the public needed in order to answer two questions: how many people died? and were  detainees tortured?

2. Are there any prerequisites to treat the events in Zhanaozen as a humanitarian catastrophe, with the further involvement of relevant international institutions and bodies?

3. Have you met with any ordinary people in Zhanaozen? Whom do they blame for what has happened?

EK:

1. Besides the things you named, other things have been done, namely: work in the villages near Zhanaozen, searches and work with the relatives and the wounded, legal help for the detainees, work on the cemeteries (they were looking for new graves), registry office, the search for and gathering of photo and video footage of the events (first and foremost, mobile phones), the negotiations with international human rights organisations to establish an international commission, we also need a website where all information would be posted and recorded, as well as extensive contact with the media.

3. Everyone with whom I spoke in Zhanaozen, except for officials and police officers, blame the government – first, the akim and the police.

The main complaint against the akim is that he did not prevent the events on the square, although he could, because before the events the striking oil workers repeatedly warned him of the mood among the youth. Many call putting up of yurts, of the stage, etc. a provocation. By the way, the akim himself openly admits that the loud music was turned on at his order to drown out the yelling of the crowd (this became a trigger). And after all, for the last 7 months he has done nothing to peacefully settle the labour dispute.

The city formed a so-called 'execution list', which includes police officers, against whom there is documentary evidence that they fired into the crowd as well as the head of the city education authority which organised the march of the children to the square. Everyone is waiting for the  riot police to leave, and then they are going to actually begin the executions. Of course, it is terrible. Anti-Nazarbayev moods are strong, of course, after he made his statements regarding the events in Zhanaozen on TV. People are also offended at the inhabitants of other regions who support the authorities. Some Zhanaozen dwellers, also those who did not participate in the protest, regret that they the protesters in the sqaure did not have any weapons and that young people did not assess the situation properly and did not take over the city police department [Municipal Department of the Interior. - PR] in the early hours and that they did not get arms (incidentally, in the police department this option was taken into consideration and the workers were prepared for the defence).

Bazyr Mussirov: In your opinion, is there a possibility that the relatives of the victims will retaliate after a while? And when, in your opinion will the true number of fatalities be known?

EK:  As far as revenge is concerned, I answered above. It is unlikely that these will be the relatives of the deceased persons, these will rather just be the locals. The execution list has already been drawn up.
There is little hope for the official investigation to provide results. Now, civil society activists and Kazakh human rights activists may work on establishing the exact number of dead. Above, we discussed the ways to do it. It will be great, if an international investigation commission is established. But Parliament must give it the permission to operate, otherwise its activity would be illegal.

Alga DVK: Elena, you are probably aware of the criminal cases that were initiated against the activists of the "People's Front". Three persons have already been arrested (Aizhan Amirova, Vladimir Kozlov, Serik Sapargali), two were released on bail with conditions that they should not leave the city (Bolat Atabaev, Zhanbolat Mamay), although they all went there only to provide the strikers with legal aid and information. Do you suspect that they could incite social discord, in which they are now accused by the security forces of Kazakhstan?

EK: We need Atabaev and Mamay's contact information, as well as the contact information of the families of the detainees and of the "People's Front". We will write.

Serik Tursun: Why do Russian officials remain silent? Acquiescence, too, is a crime. Or is it due to the fact that among those shot there were no Russians? Is it according to the principle: the fewer Kazakhs, the more Russians?

EK: Our government is not afraid of criminality. They get draw benefits from speaking. They focus on the Russian situation. We also have protests and nobody knows how they are going to end.
In the defence of Russians, our authorities act only when there is a geopolitical advantage, for example, in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In other cases they don't really care about the situation of Russians both in Russia and abroad. So this is not a concern to them.

Konstantin Alexandrov: Recently in Almaty, Kazakhstan a few renowned opponents were arrested, including Vladimir Kozlov, the leader of the 'Alga!' People's Party, and Igor Vinyavsky, the editor of the 'Vzglyad' weekly newspaper.

In the unanimous opinion of human rights defenders, colleagues, friends and readers, the charges filed against them, excuse me, are fabricated, namely: the incitement of social hatred and incitement to overthrow the government using the media. It is clear that the authorities are not only taking revenge for criticism and provision of coverage of the Zhanaozen events by these courageous people, but they also want to literally "pin" on them even the organisation of the riots. Today, the 'Golos Respubliki' newspaper also published information provided by an anonymous source that further repression may occur even in their editorial office.

1. However, the question is not about Kazakhstan but about Russia: don't you think that all of these apprehensions and the persecution of oppositionists, politicians and journalists are actions which the Russian government will undertake in the future, after Vladimir Putin's re-election (there is little doubt that he is going to be re-elected)?

2. Judging by the press information and comments on blogs and forums, the attitude of Russians towards Kazakhstan and the Kazakh problems is rather detached, superficial, and often even hostile. (they are more interested in Israel and Germany than in their closest neighbours). What do you think the reason is for this?

EK:

1. We need the contact details of Kozlov's relatives and party members, Vinyavsky's relatives and party members, of the 'Golos Respubliki'. Can you help? As for Russia - yes, I have noticed that many things happen in your country long before they occur in our country.His re-election is what we will probably strive to  prevent. We do have a chance.

2. I'll explain it with an increase in nationalist mood in Russia. Kazakhstan is often perceived as a source of migrants, and they simply have no desire to go into details. But I would not say  that this opinion is shared by most Russians. Simply that nationalists are very active on the Internet, and therefore they are more noticeable.

Lyudmyla Kozlovska [addresses EK]: We can send you all the contact data of the family members and relatives of Igor Vinyavski, Vladimir Kozlov and Serik Sapargali. They also provided coverage of the Zhanaozen events and they constantly worked with us in the international arena.

Torah Beketuly Murat: At present, everything indicates that the authorities in the RK consider only the international community, but not their own people. And they have already learned to manouvre between the major countries: whenever they have problems with the U.S., they run to the Russian Federation, or vice versa, with some variations, including China in this circle of states. What are the approved channels through which we can reach out to international organisations? When Kazakhs are just complaining - this is one thing. But when all the journalistic brethren from around the world are doing it; that is another matter. This is a question to all foreign participants.

E.K.: The most effective way to act is, of course, establishing means of communication between Kazakh human rights organisations and their international counterparts.

Such communication has been tested before and it has proved to be effective. Journalists themselves usually take comments from the international human rights organisations. Sometimes we are involved as experts and we are happy to act as such. An appeal issued by the editorial staff to international human rights organisations is often pointless - we're not the aggrieved party, we just have the information, and they read our articles anyway. Now we place our greatest hope in the HRW, by the way, they accept and work out any information, so please contact them, too. I agree that Nazarbayev can be influenced only by a consolidated international stand, but we must work to achieve one. But the investigation itself is the most important issue now.

Lyudmyla Kozlovska: Elena, THANK YOU SO MUCH! We will continue to monitor your publications and to translate them into foreign languages.