The news that Tony Blair was advising Kazakhstan on economic reform and how to improve its international image broke as a colleague and I from Human Rights Watch were researching violations of workers' rights in the western part of this oil-rich country. Throughout our trip we were under constant heavy surveillance by the authorities and at times subjected to outright intimidation.
We were questioned by police and followed by a surveillance detail of no fewer than three cars in the city of Aktau, and stopped again by police on our way to the oil town of Zhanaozen, where we were ordered to put away our phones and get out of the car for a proverka, a document check.
A plain-clothes officer – most likely a national security agent – demanded our passports and asked us why we were visiting Zhanaozen. He told us there was an ongoing "illegal action" in the town. He made clear that if we visited the central square – where hundreds of striking workers have been gathering for months – legal measures would be taken. When I suggested there was a difference between monitoring a protest and participating in one, he said: "You have been warned."
We had just a small taste of the kind of surveillance and harassment workers in the oil sector have been subjected to in the five months since hundreds of workers went on strike and staged labour protests seeking higher wages, revision of collective agreements, and non-interference in the work of unions in the oil-rich Mangistau region.
These repressive tactics have no place in a country that boasts the fastest growing economy in Central Asia, largely due to its oil and gas industry, and is aiming to be recognised as a serious global player. Kazakhstan's rights record raises serious questions about its commitment to fully respect its citizens' fundamental rights.
Tony Blair should take note.
For 20 years President Nursultan Nazarbaev has held a firm grip on power, and his government has long restricted fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion and expression. Public assembly is tightly controlled, and any politically motivated public meeting is likely to be denied a permit, broken up by police, or both.
If Mr Blair and other prominent political figures working alongside him in his enterprise Tony Blair Associates – including Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell – are eager to provide advice to President Nazarbaev's government, they should start by telling him that freeing Sokolova, ending the harassment of oil workers, and guaranteeing rights to freedom of association, expression and assembly across Kazakhstan, in accordance with its international commitments, are essential steps his government should take to improve its image.
Mihra Rittmann is a Researcher at Human RightsWatch, based in Central Asia
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