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BERLIN — Celebrations to mark Kazakhstan's 20 years of independence last week were marred by the most significant unrest seen in the country since Soviet times, with police opening fire on oil workers who have been striking since May.
Protests calling for better pay and workers rights escalated on Dec. 16 in the city of Zhanaozen in Kazakhstan's western region of Mangistau. Police opened fire, and officials say 14 people were killed — although regional analysts say that unverified witness accounts put the figure at more than 50.
Some attribute the protests to the country's wealth disparity: Kazakhstan's economy is largely dependent on its oil wealth, but analysts say that wealth is concentrated in a small fraction of the population.
"The president talks about economic prosperity," said Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst at IHS Global Insight in London. "But there is one story for rich Kazakhs and one for the poor. Energy-generated wealth really hasn't trickled down to people, like the oil workers."
The unrest coincided with anniversary celebrations that included the unveiling of a replica of Paris's Arc de Triomphe in the capital of Astana.
"The region had turned into a pressure cooker with continuing protests by former oil workers who had been fired and replaced by new people," said Ms. Gevorgyan said. "Against the backdrop of lavish celebrations of Independence Day, it could have been expected that something would go wrong."
The following day, the unrest spread to the neighboring village of Shetpe, where protesters blocked a train coming from the port of Aktau. Officials say one person was killed in clashes with police.
The government has been quick to dismiss the unrest as the work of "hooligans," and there are widely differing views among Kazakhs about who has been responsible for the violence.
"I think this was a clear provocation by certain groups who are pursuing some political goals," said Timur, 22, a student in Almaty in the east of Kazakhstan. "I am really sorry for innocent oil company workers on the seven-month-long strike. They were used by those groups."
Timur, who asked that only his first name be used, added that there is widespread sympathy for the oil workers among Kazakh citizens but said it is hard to know what is really going on from contradictory media reports.
A three-week state of emergency was imposed in Zhanaozen last week, and the social media site Twitter was shut down in the country for days following the unrest.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been Kazakhstan's head of state since 1990. After shaking off Soviet rule in 1991, he clung to power, changing his title from chairman of the Supreme Soviet to president and maintaining autocratic authority.
Last month, Mr. Nazarbayev announced mid-term parliamentary elections for Jan. 15. A new system will be implemented that could allow opposition party members into parliament for the first time.
But analysts suspect this may be a strategy to maneuver the president's son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev — who is not currently in parliament but is tipped as Mr. Nazarbayev's choice for his successor — into a position where he would be ready to inherit power.
"Obviously it is particularly pertinent now with what's happening in North Korea, how important it is for these figures to have a succession plan in place when they die," said Louise Taggart, Eurasia intelligence analyst at risk management company AKE in London.
Some have depicted the recent unrest as an attempt to destabilize the political status quo ahead of next month's elections, but Ms. Gevorgyan said that dissatisfaction over social conditions among common Kazakhs should be far more worrying for Mr. Nazarbayev.
"The opposition parties did try to capitalize on the protests, but the oil workers were hesitant to get into wider political discourse," she said. "The action was simply about their woes, rights and their demand for more fair distribution of the wealth from energy resources that belongs to the land of Kazakhstan.
"This is a simple argument and appealing to many ordinary Kazakhs, and this is why it is [a] very dangerous development for the government. If this was a politically or religiously motivated protest, the government would have better arguments in fighting against them."
Still, some local analysts say that the protests were engineered to destabilize the region.
"The events are initiated by a group of armed people who came to Zhanaozen from other places, who triggered the police to use weapons," said Aleksandr Knyazev, a senior fellow at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Oriental Studies, based in Moscow and Almaty. "Real events in western Kazakhstan are very different from the image that is created in the mass media, and especially in social networks, and in international public opinion."
While the recent violence is a new development and so far limited to Mangistau, where most of the country's oil infrastructure is located, many expect the protests to continue.
With the end of Mr. Nazarbayev's 20-year rule being anticipated, the government's response is being watched closely.
"It will be interesting to see whether the government will engage actively with the protesters and seek to defuse the situation, or if they continue with this crackdown using of violence and basically ignore the underlying socio-economic reasons why the protest happened in the first place," Ms. Taggart said.
• T. Umaraliev reported from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
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