Growing Danger Of Social Explosion In Western Kazakhstan That Delivered 46.6 Million Tons Of Oil To EU In 2023 – OpEd

Geopolitics, in a recent piece entitled “Why Does Kazakhstan Matter to the EU?”, said: “The energy-rich country recently offered its Caspian Sea ports of Aktau and Kuryk, as well as 22 airports, to European investors for management to build a strong transit hub between Asia and Europe… On January 29 in Brussels, at the Global Gateway Investors Forum for the EU – Central Asia Transport Connectivity, Kazakhstan and the European Union signed four memorandums worth over 800 million euros (US$865.7 million). One of the goals of these deals is to further develop the Middle Corridor, also known as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), given that it represents an alternative to the existing East-West routes”.

The author of the above publication, Nikola Mikovic, also mentioned that about 85% of goods in transit on land from China to Europe are transported through Kazakhstan. It might be added here that the significance of the Mangystau province where the Caspian Sea ports of Aktau and Kuryk, which are seen as key to developing the Middle Corridor (the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route), are located, is not limited to its potential as an important transit hub on the way from East to West. 

It, together with Atyrau and West Kazakhstan provinces, which are also located in Western Kazakhstan, is among the three major – if not the only three – suppliers of those tens of millions of tons of oil that the Republic of Kazakhstan delivers to the EU every year. This means that it is about one of those provinces to which Kazakhstan owes its fame of being ‘among the top exporters of oil to the countries of the European Union’. It should also be noted that the Central Asian nation has been supplying the oil to several other European countries outside the EU (Turkey, Switzerland), too. Here is what Kazakh Energy Minister Almasadam Satkaliyev recently said in this regard: “The results of 2023 showed that the export of Kazakh oil to European Union countries was 46.6 million tons, while the total export of Kazakh oil amounted to 70.5 million tons or 66% of the total export of crude oil from Kazakhstan. The data show that in 2021, our country exported 49 million tons of crude oil to Europe, and in 2022 – 45 million tons, in 2023 – 52 million tons”.

It turns out that in 2023, the EU accounted for two-thirds (66%) of the total export of Kazakh oil, and Europe as a whole, for almost three-quarters (74%) of it. In the first 7 months of 2023, the EU imported 275.7 mln tons of crude oil with the monthly average standing at approximately 40 mln tons, and with the share of Kazakhstan as an oil exporter in it at about 4 mln tons.   

The Central Asian nation produces approximately 1.8 million barrels a day (mb/d), equivalent to 2 percent of the world’s total oil output. At the same time, it accounts for a little less than 10% of the EU’s oil imports. In other words, last year, Kazakhstan has been delivering a little less than 1.0 mb/d to the EU, and a little more 1.0 mb/d to Europe as a whole. It can therefore be assumed, that Kazakhstan is very important to the European Union. The latter, in turn, is just as important, if not more, important to the Central Asian country, since the largest share of export revenue, which keeps up the socio-economic welfare of the Kazakh country and society, comes from the sale of oil to the European Union and to several other European countries outside the EU. The proof of this is that the two largest oil-producing provinces in the country, the Atyrau, and Mangystau ones, are the only two provinces-donors of Kazakhstan. 

Given the foregoing, it appears to be quite logical to assume that the ways how things are going in these two regions of Kazakhstan, should be important not only to official Astana but also to the EU and Europe as a whole. But this isn’t the case now today, on the background of the oil workers’ strikes in the Mangystau provinces which are entering their third month. In a letter to the President of Kazakhstan, ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation) General Secretary Luc Triangle has demanded that all sanctions against the striking workers are dropped and all “necessary measures are taken to ensure that this labor dispute is resolved through social dialogue and in line with the principle of freedom of association”. The ILO (International Labor Organization) Committee on the Applications of Conventions and Recommendations has repeatedly criticized the law in Kazakhstan that criminalizes workers who strike. Luc Triangle concluded: “The government must take on its responsibility to promote social dialogue, collective bargaining, and freedom of association”. But Kazakh President Tokayev hasn’t publicly said anything about those protests and strikes yet. Against this backdrop, the government of Kazakhstan and the rest of the country kind of do not notice them, too.

Azattyq TV recently reported that in the cities of Aktau and Zhanaozen, as well as in the village of Zhetybai and the Tupkaragan district, hundreds and hundreds of local people are on strike. Some of them have been striking for more than 70 days, others since last week. They have been repeatedly sending video messages to President Tokayev and Prime Minister Bektenov, but, as far as can be judged, to no avail.

On February 22, Kazmunaigas (KMG), Kazakhstan’s national oil company, called on those oil workers who had been striking since December 11, end the strike, go to work, and ‘solve problems through constructive dialogue’. It is unclear what the result of this effort will be.

Even if a halt to those protest actions between the employers and the strikers is agreed upon in the coming days, the conditions in the Mangystau region that brought those strikes and ones like them into being, are unlikely to change.

Here is what Zhandarbek Кakishev, a member of the Republic of Kazakhstan Parliament Senate in 2002–2008, said about this issue a little over a year ago: “If this continues, then a bleak prospect awaits us. In the future, it is quite possible that young people who are unemployed or underpaid, even when they have a job, may tomorrow rise up and try to seize the property of the capital’s oligarchs by force. And the day after tomorrow they can go against foreign companies”. He thus warned of the danger of a social explosion in Kazakhstan’s oil-producing region.

Zhandarbek Кakishev said this in February 2023, while replying to a question about the lessons of the 2022 Kazakh unrest, also known as January Events Bloody January or the January Tragedy. The above-mentioned protest actions seem to be indications that nothing has changed for the better in Kazakhstan’s oil-producing region since he said those words.     

The question is, what to expect now?