AKTAU, Kazakhstan (AP) — Switch on Kazakhstan state television's evening news and it almost always opens with an item testifying to the nation's stability and economic prowess. So it was a shock when a recent edition began with the president announcing a state of emergency in a town rocked by deadly clashes between demonstrators and police.
The rare public acknowledgment of trouble indicates the government's belated concern over tensions underneath the ex-Soviet state's placid facade. But it remains unclear how effectively authorities will address them.
Instability in Kazakhstan could have far-reaching consequences. It is an increasingly important source of oil and gas, as well as uranium, zinc and copper. The Northern Distribution Network that supplies U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan goes through the Central Asian country's seemingly endless stretches of bleak steppe.
In the 20 years since independence, Kazakhstan has been one of the former Soviet Union's success stories — avoiding the civil wars and rebellions that plagued its neighbors, assiduously promoting religious tolerance and ethnic harmony and recording impressive economic growth.
But as the country's fortunes flowered, its political system withered. The party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has led the country since independence in 1991, wields a crushing domination, holding all the seats in parliament. Opposition parties are allowed, but are so repressed and bullied that they are nearly invisible. Corruption is rampant; Kazakhstan is ranked 120th out of 183 countries in Transparency International's annual corruption perception index.
Officials swat aside complaints of democratic shortcomings and the monolithic domination of the political scene by the president's Nur Otan party, arguing that these things will take time to change. But this month's violence in the energy-rich western Mangystau region suggests time may be running out.
In Zhanaozen, a scruffy town of some 90,000 people, hundreds of oil workers in May took to the main square and declared a strike over what they said were unfair salaries.
Union representatives said monthly incomes for oil workers ranged upward of $600, which is equivalent to the national average, but that employers failed to account for the expense of living in a remote area where all goods are imported from far away.
Laborers complained that while they endure severe conditions in a part of the country that ranges from searingly hot to punishingly cold, much of the riches they generate go elsewhere.
"The problem is that there isn't enough public oversight over the resources sector. If there were transparent information, people would know how much was being extracted and what money is coming in," said Kenzhegali Suyeyov, chairman of the Aktau independent workers' union in Mangystau.
When workers showed no sign of yielding, their employer, state-controlled Kazmunaigas Exploration Production, fired them en masse. Undeterred, the protesters held their ground. Those representing the oil workers did so at their peril.
After seven months of patient and peaceful demonstrations in Zhanaozen, something snapped. On Dec. 16, clashes broke out between police and demonstrators.
Dozens of buildings were burned down and at least 14 people were killed by police gunfire. Local people maintain the death toll was higher.
The next day, large crowds occupied a railway line in the village of Shetpe, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. According to the official account, at the end of a day of tense negotiations with authorities, a large gang began throwing Molotov cocktails at train carriages and police opened fire, killing one person.
The state-nurtured illusion of universal contentedness had been shattered.
"There is a large number of problems that the authorities don't want to deal with and solve, which is why ever more people are drawn to extremist messages," said political analyst Dosym Satpayev. "Zhanaozen is not a one-off, and it is fair to expect that such incidents will increase in number in the near future."
In boom times, the commercial capital, Almaty, has attracted masses of low-paid laborers who have often resorted to seeking accommodation in shanty towns on the suburbs. One such settlement, Shanyrak, was earmarked for demolition in 2006, which prompted robust and violent resistance from residents.
As the rural poor look for their fortunes in cities they can barely afford to live in, many believe such flare-ups will be repeated on a regular basis.
Ominously, the notable harmony among Kazakhstan's multiple ethnic minorities has been strained by fierce rivalry over sparse resources. Although reporting on ethnic clashes is taboo, representatives of the Chechen, Uyghur and Meskhetian Turk communities tell of sporadic clashes in southern villages and towns with the Kazakh majority in recent years.
This year also has seen an unprecedented spike in radical Islamist-inspired attacks that have claimed dozens of lives.
Nazarbayev on Monday said the violence was incited by unspecified foreign agitators aiming to "sow social, interreligious, interethic discord in our society." But he also blamed government officials for failing to resolve the labor dispute.
Since the violence in Zhanaozen and Shetpe, crowds of protesting former oil workers have been coming out into the freezing cold in the Mangystau regional capital, Aktau, in a show of solidarity.
Authorities have shown some initiative in entering into dialogue with the oil workers. But thousands of police have been dispatched to the region, raising anxiety and resentment among the locals.
Government critics worry that Nazarbayev may be reluctant to adopt more root and branch political reform.
"Zhanaozen was a very important moment, a turning point. The situation in Kazakhstan before and after Zhanaozen is fundamentally different," said opposition politician Petr Svoik.
Svoik said, however, that it appear as though Kazakh authorities intend to behave as though nothing had happened.
"What doesn't bend, breaks. And that is very dangerous for Kazakhstan," he said.