Kazakhstan is facing the growing prospect of an international backlash over a crackdown on labor unions that has curtailed workers' rights and increased the likelihood of social unrest and political destabilization.
In January, a court in the southern city of Shymkent closed Kazakhstan's Confederation of Independent Trade Unions and its affiliates, including the first trade union of domestic workers established in the former Soviet Union. The confederation had failed to register its constituent trade unions, which in turn was a result of technical and legal barriers erected by local authorities.
The decision is likely to lead to a reprimand from the International Labor Organization, which rebuked Kazakhstan in 2015 and 2016 over violations of its conventions. Trade union activists say there were procedural violations during the January hearings, and a higher court is scheduled to hear a final appeal against the judgment on March 28.
The closure has already led to a 15-day hunger strike by oil workers at Oil Construction Co., which provides building and repair services for the KazMunayGas national oil and gas company. Authorities have declared the strike illegal, arrested two union leaders and punished some of the hundreds of strikers by forcing them to pay damages to their employer.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based campaign group, expressed serious concerns over the latest crackdown in the oil sector, which has suffered a sharp production decline over the past three years, cutting Kazakhstan's annual rate of economic growth from 6% in 2013 to 1% in 2016.
"We see the banning of the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan as a significant step backward for Kazakhstan because Kazakhstan should be recognizing the value of having independent trade unions," said Hugh Williamson, director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia division.
The ILO said in a report that despite repeated requests to Kazakhstan for a response to complaints filed by domestic and international union confederations it had yet to hear from the government. It urged the authorities to "complete comments without delay."
Williamson suggested that the ILO may step up pressure on Kazakhstan. "The U.S. and [member states of the European Union] are important members of the ILO, and they are also involved in sanctioning Kazakhstan and have expectations that Kazakhstan is to abide by these reprimands," he said.
The crackdown could also affect foreign investment. A bilateral treaty signed by the EU and Kazakhstan in December 2015 contains clauses relating to employment issues and labor rights. "The European Commission [the EU's executive arm] could raise those clauses and warn that Kazakhstan is in danger of violating them and suspend the whole cooperation agreement," said Williamson.
The Kazakh government claims that the new labor rules aim to "revitalize trade unions, prevent social labor conflicts and protect labor rights and interests of workers." Strikers must notify their employers at least five days in advance of planned actions, and employers can fire workers if a court deems industrial action to be illegal. Authorities can also prosecute activists and impose heavy fines on participants in illegal strikes.
Railway, transport and communications, civil aviation, health care and public utilities workers may strike only if they maintain minimum services, while workers in emergency medical, rescue services and "dangerous" industrial facilities are not allowed to strike at all.
Kazakhstan's uncompromising stance has set some other trading partners on edge. In its latest Kazakhstan human rights report, the U.S. State Department said that "onerous preconditions for commencing a legal strike" would lead to spontaneous illegal strikes, with further negative consequences.
The U.K. said in July 2016 that it had concerns about Kazakhstan's human rights record, and that "trade union closures leave enough space for concerns on the human rights situation in Kazakhstan."
The government is sensitive about Kazakhstan's international image, and has worked hard to present a polished front. It assumed a much-coveted U.N. Security Council nonpermanent seat in January, and has been negotiating with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based club of rich countries, over the last two years, hoping to join some of its committees in 2017 with a view to full membership in the future.
In addition, the government hosted negotiations between Syrian rebels and the Syrian government in January. Between June and September Kazakhstan will host an international exhibition in Astana. The government's aim is for Kazakhstan to be among the world's top 30 most competitive countries.
"The OECD does set important standards on the environment in which business can operate. They expect conditions to be created for independent trade unions to operate properly and they expect good standards in social and labor issues," Williamson warned.
Trade union activists said the disbandment of the confederation will provoke more strikes, drawing parallels between the current situation and a long strike over wages in Zhanaozen in 2011 that led to at least 15 deaths after the authorities moved to quell it.
"The judge [in the January hearings] seemed to have been very quick to implement someone's orders," said Svetlana Katorcha, a lawyer for the confederation. "They [judges] themselves are provoking people to stage rallies and some other kind of resistive action."
Gulnara Zhuaspayeva, a lawyer for the detained leaders of the oil workers -- Amin Yeleusinov and Nurbek Kushakpayev, who are facing criminal charges for allegedly embezzling union funds and for calling for the strike, respectively -- said the action was not a labor dispute but an exercise of the workers' constitutional rights to freedom of assembly.
Zhuaspayeva said the punishments were "politically motivated," and disputed the heavy fines imposed on workers because their action was staged while they were off-duty. She also warned that criminal prosecutions of trade union leaders could lead to unrest. "We should not allow a second Zhanaozen," she said.
Katorcha said that the government was actively removing union leaders to pre-empt social unrest caused by the economic crisis. "They think if they remove leaders who can organize others, then perhaps people can't follow them."
In spring 2016, Kazakhstan witnessed a wave of large-scale protests against government plans to allow the sale of farmland to entities with foreign ownership. As a result of the protests, President Nursultan Nazarbayev imposed a five-year moratorium on land reform.
Katorcha said she does not expect the court ruling banning the confederation to be overturned, but suggested that the government may eventually give in to international pressure and domestic public opinion.