People and Nature

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I can recommend no blog more highly than People and Nature. Whether you’re interested in climate change and the environment, energy, Russia, Syria, Ukraine, the UK, labor and social movements, international solidarity campaigns or history, Gabriel Levy has written so many incise, supremely well-grounded articles and interventions on these subjects since 2011 that it would take a month of Sundays to take all of them in. But since you’ll undoubtedly learn more about our world by reading People and Nature than by subjecting yourself to the endless eardrum buzz of media and social media, this is exactly what you should do.

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I hope, dear readers, you get time for reflection, rejuvenation and relaxation in the midwinter holidays. If you find yourself reaching for your phone for something to read – then, rather than winding yourself up with news of Boris Johnson’s vileness, go a level more thoughtful: look at those People & Nature articles you missed out on first time round. Here is some stuff that has stood the test of time. Thanks for your interest, and see you all (virtually or really) in the 2020s.

Image courtesy of People and Nature

It’s Official

It’s official: the British political establishment, Benjamin Netanyahu, Jay-Z, “Moscow” Mitch McConnell, and Greyhound totally suck.

But you knew that, right?

thevoima

The Brexit process has already claimed victims: communities such as Scunthorpe, which are suffering job losses and hardship due to Brexit-related industrial closures; migrant workers from EU countries who find their lives thrown into uncertainty and themselves and their families vilified. Their anger is more than justified. But, in addition to this, the Brexit process has produced a gloom, a feeling of powerlessness, of fear, of uncertainty, that is obviously affecting millions of people. I think this feeling is the product of an illusion that our enemies are powerful enough to decide our fate above our heads. It’s another version of the illusions of power that have engendered fear, obedience and subservience to elites for centuries. It’s an illusion, because they, too, are tormented by crisis. It makes them more ruthless, it throws up the zealots – but it doesn’t necessarily make them stronger. We – social movements, communities, workplace organisations, movements about climate change – can find, and are finding, ways to challenge these enemies. (The FcK Boris demonstration when the new government took office was a reminder of this.) This is not a plea for false hope. It’s a suggestion that we evaluate our enemies’ strengths and weaknesses carefully. And be prepared for surprises.
—Gabriel Levy, “Zealots and Ditherers,” People and Nature, 15 August 2019

Tlaib and Omar aren’t the first critics of Israel penalized by the 2017 law, but they are the most prominent. The law targets those who “actively, consistently and continuously” promote boycotts of Israel. It applies to those who hold senior-level positions in pro-boycott organizations, are key activists in the boycott movements, or are prominent public figures (members of Congress, for instance) who support a boycott. More than 20 groups have been blacklisted, including the Nobel Peace Prize–winning American Friends Services Committee. One notable case was the banning of Lara Alqasem, an American college student of Palestinian descent who received a visa to study human rights at Hebrew University but was ordered deported and detained for two weeks on suspicion of being a boycott supporter. Her deportation was later overturned.
—Joshua Keating, “Israel Banned Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar Because They’re Anti-Trump, Not Anti-Israel,” Slate, 15 August 2019

In Mazur’s photo, Jay-Z’s right arm is pointed like an arrow. Goodell looks in the same direction, as does everyone else in the frame. It’s irresistible that way. What is Jay talking about, and why is everyone so rapt? Here’s a Brooklyn-born kid who made good, raised himself up from the projects, became one of the most recognizable names in pop music, and can now claim status as a self-made billionaire. It’s the kind of story you want to believe in. But then you stare a beat longer, holding your gaze, and the mirage begins to wither.

Illusion works both ways: It’s as much about who is in the photo as who isn’t. You ask yourself, Where is Kaepernick or Reid, the two players who sparked the protest? Why are other players who’ve since scrutinized the league, especially those who comprise the Players Coalition, absent from the meeting? That’s the danger in illusion, especially one cast by the NFL. Even though one might see through its hollow spectacle, there’s little to be done to break its spell. Jay-Z commands attention and everyone looks on, ghostly captivated. His arm stretches into an unknowable future. There are those who will follow, and others, who will rightly wonder: Is this the right direction?
—Jason Parham, “Depth of Field: Where Is Jay-Z Taking the NFL?” Wired, 15 August 2019

In January, as the Senate debated whether to permit the Trump administration to lift sanctions on Russia’s largest aluminum producer, two men with millions of dollars riding on the outcome met for dinner at a restaurant in Zurich.

On one side of the table sat the head of sales for Rusal, the Russian aluminum producer that would benefit most immediately from a favorable Senate vote. The U.S. government had imposed sanctions on Rusal as part of a campaign to punish Russia for “malign activity around the globe,” including attempts to sway the 2016 presidential election.

On the other side sat Craig Bouchard, an American entrepreneur who had gained favor with officials in Kentucky, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Bouchard was trying to build the first new aluminum-rolling mill in the United States in nearly four decades, in a corner of northeastern Kentucky ravaged by job losses and the opioid epidemic — a project that stood to benefit enormously if Rusal were able to get involved.

The men did not discuss the Senate debate that night at dinner, Bouchard said in an interview, describing it as an amicable introductory chat.

But the timing of their meeting shows how much a major venture in McConnell’s home state had riding on the Democratic-backed effort in January to keep sanctions in place.

By the next day, McConnell had successfully blocked the bill, despite the defection of 11 Republicans.

Within weeks, the U.S. government had formally lifted sanctions on Rusal, citing a deal with the company that reduced the ownership interest of its Kremlin-linked founder, Oleg Deripaska. And three months later, Rusal announced plans for an extraordinary partnership with Bouchard’s company, providing $200 million in capital to buy a 40 percent stake in the new aluminum plant in Ashland, Ky. — a project Gov. Matt Bevin (R) boasted was “as significant as any economic deal ever made in the history of Kentucky.”

A spokesman for McConnell said the majority leader did not know that Bouchard had hopes of a deal with Rusal at the time McConnell led the Senate effort to end the sanctions, citing the recommendation of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

McConnell “was not aware of any potential Russian investor before the vote,” spokesman David Popp said.

Bouchard said no one from his company, Braidy Industries, told anyone in the U.S. government that lifting sanctions could help advance the project. Rusal’s parent company, EN+, said in a statement that the Kentucky project played no role in the company’s vigorous lobbying campaign to persuade U.S. officials to do away with sanctions.

But critics said the timing is disturbing.

“It is shocking how blatantly transactional this arrangement looks,” said Michael McFaul, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration and now teaches at Stanford University.

Democratic senators have called for a government review of the deal, prompting a Rusal executive in Moscow last week to threaten to pull out of the investment.
—Tom Hamburger and Rosalind S. Helderman, “How a McConnell-Backed Effort to Lift Russian Sanctions Boosted a Kentucky Project,” Washington Post, 14 August 2019

Throughout the country, people rely on Greyhound to get to work, visit family, or to simply travel freely. But Greyhound has been letting Border Patrol board its buses to question and arrest passengers without a warrant or any suspicion of wrongdoing. The company is throwing its loyal customers under the bus.

For more than a year, we’ve been urging Greyhound to stop letting Border Patrol board its buses, but the company is refusing to issue a policy protecting its customers. So now we’re taking our fight to the next level.

Greyhound is owned by FirstGroup plc, a multi-national transport group based in the UK, whose own Code of Ethics and Corporate Responsibility contradicts what its subsidiary has been doing to passengers.

“We are committed to recognising human rights on a global basis. We have a zero-tolerance approach to any violations within our company or by business partners.”

Greyhound’s complicity in the Trump deportation machine is a clear violation of the human rights values that FirstGroup professes to uphold. We must raise our voices: Sign the petition to demand that FirstGroup direct Greyhound to comply with its code of ethics. Greyhound must stop throwing customers under the bus.
—ACLU: Buses Are No Place for Border Patrol

Image courtesy of The Voima

People and Nature: Break the Silence on Azerbaijan Oil Workers’ Deaths

An improvised memorial to the victims. Photo: OWRPO site
An improvised memorial to the victims. Photo: OWRPO site

Break the silence on Azerbaijan oil workers’ deaths
People and Nature
August 4, 2016

Nine months after 31 workers drowned in Azerbaijan’s worst-ever oil industry disaster, the country’s authorities have still not said a word about how it happened or what mistakes could be avoided in future.

Most of the victims were thrown into the water when a lifeboat smashed against the side of production platform No. 10 at the Guneshli oil field in the Caspian Sea, as they tried to escape a fire during a force 10 gale on 4 December last year.

The Oil Workers Rights Protection Organisation (OWRPO), a campaign group, says state oil company managers broke safety laws for the sake of keeping production going, and that workers did not even have life jackets on during the attempt to evacuate the platform.

State officials lied to the media and the public during the emergency, and treated oil workers’ families with contempt, the OWRPO said in a report published in February.

The government was quick to dismiss the report, but its own 14-person commission, set up to deal with the disaster’s consequences, has not breathed a word. The prosecutor’s office has opened a criminal case (which is standard procedure), but has made public no details of its investigation. It is not known whether it has questioned managers accused by oil workers of glaring safety breaches.

Mirvari Gharamanli, president of the OWRPO, said in an interview with People & Nature: “It’s ‘oil first, people second’, just like in Soviet times. The human factor is devalued. It should be other way round: people first, and then the oil.

“People should have been evacuated in a timely way. Attention should have been paid to these safety issues. But the human factor comes at the end”, she said.

The oil workers’ trade union should have been monitoring safety standards, but were “not interested” in that nor in investigating the causes of the accident, she said. “They helped with a bit of money to the families, that’s all. And we are talking about human lives here.”

The events of 4 December, as described in the media and the OWRPO’s report, were as follows. (The OWRPO report is here; there are news agency reports here and here; and a valuable analytical article on the Caspian Barrel web site.)

Wind speed had risen to 38-40 metres per second, and the height of waves rose from 8 metres to 9-10 metres. At about 17.40, a submarine gas pipe running from the platform broke.

Map of the Caucasus and Caspian Sea region
A map of the Caucasus and Caspian Sea region

There was an explosion of gas escaping from it, and a fire broke out, which soon spread to a number of the oil and gas wells operated from the platform.

Due to the strength of the storm, firefighting and rescue vessels were unable to reach the platform, which is operated by Azneft, a production division of Socar (the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic).

There were 63 workers on the rig; most of them evacuated via the north side of the platform and boarded two lifeboats. The OWRPO says that the way the evacuation was implemented by those in charge on the platform showed a lack of safety training and awareness.

Both of the boats were lowered on cables to about 10 metres above sea level: it was decided not to lower them into the water for fear of being dashed against the platform by the storm.

One of the lifeboats was blown by the wind and got wedged between the platform’s supporting legs. That saved the lives of its occupants, who were rescued after the storm subsided.

The cables holding the other boat snapped. It was blown against the side of the rig and broke into pieces. Those on board were thrown into the water.

The rescue vessels, still held back by the force of the storm, only managed to pull three men from the water, one of whom died straight away.

The rest of those who had been on that lifeboat perished. The OWRPO concluded that there were 12 dead and 19 missing, presumed dead (listed in the OWRPO report here). There has been no official list of victims published by the government or Socar.

Three other Azerbaijani oil workers lost their lives on 4 December: Dzhavad Khudaverdiev (44), Bakhman Dzhafarov (54) and Rovshan Mamedov (41) were swept out to sea from production platform No. 501 at the Oil Rocks oil field, bringing the total number of deceased on that day to 34. (Reported here in Russian.)

The OWRPO conducted its own investigation into the tragedy, and published it on 24 February this year. The organisation concluded that:

■ Workers had reported a gas leak from the pipeline a day before the disaster. They were told by the managers of the “28 May” oil and gas production department not to stop production, although doing so might have minimised losses when the accident happened.

■ The practice, and legal requirement in Azerbaijan, of reducing worker numbers on rigs to the minimum during stormy weather, was not followed. Of the 63 people on the rig when the fire began, 15 were members of a construction and drilling team, in breach of the Labour Code, which states that construction, installation and dismantling work on platforms should be stopped during stormy weather.

■ There were other non-essential workers, including five catering staff, on the platform. “The heads of departments are obliged to explain to society, and the families of killed and missing oil workers: why didn’t they send them away, if they received information about a hurricane?” the OWRPO report states.

■ Azerbaijan’s law requires that in storms of force 8 or greater, most types of production work should be stopped, and that in storms of force 10 or greater, all work, except to flush and cool tools, should be stopped. This did not happen.

■ Many of the workers were not wearing lifejackets during the evacuation. Mirvari Gharamanli said this is confirmed by photographic evidence from the scene, and her own meetings with survivors in hospitals. (Note. There are different requirements for safety clothing in different countries. On the North Sea, the standard now is for each worker to have a survival suit; in some oil producing countries, lifejackets are still the norm. UK oil worker trade unionists say it is unthinkable that, during an evacuation during stormy weather, either survival suits or lifejackets were not available.)

■ “Safety rules were seriously violated”, the OWRPO said; direct responsibility lies with the heads of the “28 May” oil and gas production department, the complex drilling trust, the transportation department, Caspian Catering Service and others.

■ “During the rescue operation, oil workers were not given proper instructions.” (The report stated that some industry experts believed that the evacuation should not have been attempted, and that workers would have had a better chance of survival by remaining on the platform, in the living quarters. Other industry specialists dispute this.)

■ Questions were raised by industry specialists about the quality of the lifeboats, and when they had been inspected.

The OWRPO report also detailed the fog of lies and deceit created around the accident by the government and Socar on the evening that it took place.

For six hours after the emergency began, no public comment was issued by Socar or the ministry of emergency situations; then Socar issued a statement that there had been no injuries or deaths. Mirvari Gharamanli explained in her interview how her Facebook page became a lightning rod for information in the midst of an official blackout.

The OWRPO also accuses the authorities of treating oil workers’ families with contempt. Although, under pressure, they established a central information point, no psychological support was provided, and some families were sent away by intolerant officials.

Socar in March issued an inconsequential rebuttal to the OWRPO report (reported here), which failed to deal with any of the main points, but has itself said nothing about the causes of the disaster, or the possibility that safety procedures could be improved.

It is hard to think of a more cynical, money-grubbing attitude to the safety of a company’s employees.

The background to the disaster is the generally poor safety culture in the Azerbaijani oil industry, the OWRPO says. In 2014, 19 people were killed; in 2015, as a result of the accident on platform No. 10, this figure more than doubled to 40. The organisation blames production-oriented management and the spinelessness of the officially sanctioned trade union, which has raised no protest at the official failure to investigate last year’s tragedy.

But this is also an issue for the oil industry, and oil workers, internationally. (James Marriott raised some key issues in December last year, in this article.)

The Guneshli death toll was the highest on an offshore oil platform since the explosion on Piper Alpha in the North Sea, which killed 167 British workers in 1988, and the highest in any offshore accident since the American drilling ship Seacrest capsized in the Gulf of Thailand in 1989, killing 90 people. And yet the international reaction to it has been minimal.

The British government, a key supporter of the Azerbaijan regime, has maintained a polite silence. BP, which operates the largest oil and gas fields in Azerbaijan, and has billions of dollars’ worth of joint projects with Socar (although it has no operational involvement whatever with the Guneshli field where the accident took place) sees the Azerbaijani company as one of its most important business partners.

An acquaintance who works in the oil business said: “You could see how important they think the lives of oil workers are, at the annual oil and gas business conference in Baku in June. No one from the oil companies or the government expressed any regret about the disaster. It was not even mentioned by any of the main speakers. Not even a moment’s silence.”

Senior BP managers and Baroness Nicholson, representing the UK government, were among those who had more important things to discuss.

Oil is an international business. We need to find a way to link up international struggles in workers’ and communities’ interests.

Let’s hope the international trade union federations can find ways of putting pressure on Azerbaijan over its appalling safety record. Maybe British and Norwegian oil workers could take up the issue.

Let’s find ways of supporting OWRPO’s efforts to organise Azerbaijani oil workers, to improve workplace conditions and dismantle the safety culture that subordinates human life to production. GL, 4 August 2016.

■ “It’s ‘oil first, people second’, just like in Soviet times – interview with Mirvari Gahramanli, Oil Workers’ Rights Protection Organization president

Also about the Caspian Sea region:

Kazakhstan: land protesters face police rampage – by Andrei Grishin. 25 May 2016

Activists imprisoned in Azerbaijan, the house that BP built. 7 June 2015

Kazakh oil workers. Links to articles on the 2011 strike, the shootings that ended it, and the campaign for justice that followed

Thanks to Gabriel Levy for his kind permission to reprint this article here. TRR

Kazakhstan: Land Protesters Face Police Rampage

Kazakhstan: Land Protesters Face Police Rampage
People and Nature
May 25, 2016

Street protests against plans to step up land privatization were broken up by police in many of Kazakhstan’s largest cities on Saturday, May 21. The demonstrations were organized by informal online networks rather than by any of the recognized opposition groups. Here are the key points from a report by Andrei Grishin, published in Russian on the website of the Fergana News Agency.

Special rapid-reaction police detachments attacked small groups [of demonstrators] wherever they gathered. They grabbed everyone, regardless of gender, age and nationality. Dozens of journalists were arrested.

Kazakhstan had waited for the events of May 21 with bated breath. [Protesters had named that as a day of action after a previous wave of demonstrations had forced the government to pull back from planned land reforms. See an earlier report here.] The official media had railed against the protests. And it all ended, as it has so many times before, with the “slaughter of the innocents,” but this time more brutal than usual. The detention of dozens of journalists, including foreigners, was proof of that.

Police detain land protester in Almaty
Police detain protester in Almaty, May 21, 2016

However, for the first time, people came out to protest all at once, in a number of cities and towns, without any leaders, because these leaders had either been arrested in advance, or had agreed to the authorities’ demands [after the previous demonstrations] and joined the [government’s] land commission.

[In Almaty in the southeast, the largest city in Kazakhstan and former capital, the authorities used every possible method of disrupting people’s plans to demonstrate. They created a “terrorism” scare, announcing the discovery of a stash of molotov cocktails, sticks, money and explosives; blocked social media; and issued orders forbidding public sector employees, students and workers in large enterprises from demonstrating, and in many cases, called people into work. Nevertheless, people gathered in small groups at Astana Square and by 11.30 am there were about a thousand of them. The police then went on the rampage, arresting and dispersing people.]

In other towns where activists made attempts to gather in squares or parks, the authorities acted similarly, although the numbers of both demonstrators and police were much smaller than those in Almaty. [There were arrests in Astana, the new capital, whereas things went compariatively peacefully in Kustanai and Pavlodar.]

In any case, no revolution took place! The president of the administrative policing committee at the ministry of internal affairs, Igor Lepekha, announced on Saturday that there had been “no unsanctioned gatherings or conflicts with the police. No breaches of order were permitted.” But at the same time he confirmed the detention of a number of people, including journalists; there had been a “misunderstanding” with the latter, he said.

Nevertheless, even this small number of demonstrations was a new phenomenon in Kazakhstan, in the sense that they started simultaneously in different regions. And all the experts noted in chorus that the land question was just the pretext, that in fact people have all sorts of other issues with the government. And that is really worrying parliament, above all, the fact that people are openly, and quite legally, calling for the resignation of the president.

And so it was clear that the government once again would deal with the problem [of protest] with repression. Evidence of this was the series of criminal cases opened even before May 21 against civil society activists, and the announcement by the internal affairs department of Western Kazakhstan about “preventing mass disorder.”And it is still possible, of course, that the Almaty police will “find” the owners of the molotov cocktails and sticks [i.e. use frame-up tactics against militants].

Police detaining protesters in Almaty on Saturday, May 21, 2016
Police detaining protesters in Almaty on Saturday, May 21, 2016

However at the same time the authorities have treated the land question with great caution, thus the one-year moratorium [announced by President Nazarbayev on 6 May] on the amendments [to the land code], and the establishment of the land commission, and inclusion in it of several “disloyal” civil society activists, and the hints that have been dropped about the possibility that each citizen of the country could be granted by law 1,000 square meters of free land.

Riot police loading protesters onto a bus, Almaty, May 21, 2016
Riot police loading protesters onto a bus, Almaty, May 21, 2016

Just a few days ago, when the government feared the spread of mass action, President Nazarbayev appealed to Kazakhs “not to shame ourselves before the world, but to solve our complicated problems by means of constructive dialogue.”

Despite this talk of “constructive dialogue” from the president, the police special detachments hid firearms in their buses on Saturday. Whether they had plastic bullets, tear gas or live ammunition we don’t know. But thankfully they didn’t open fire on the crowds: bearing in mind the events at Zhanaozen and Shetpe [in December 2011, when police fired on a crowd of striking oil workers, killing at least 16 and wounding at least 60], it seems there was enough sense at the top to order that there be no repeat of that. 25 May 2016.

People and Nature: Punitive Psychiatry Back in Vogue in Russia

Russia: punishment psychiatry back in vogue
People and Nature
February 17, 2016

The Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky has been sent to the notorious Serbsky Institute of Psychiatry, and his family and lawyers are worried about him.

On November 9, 2015, Pavlensky poured petrol over the doors of the infamous Federal Security Service (FSB) building at Lubyanka Square in central Moscow and set fire to them. He named the action Threat (Ugroza). Friends photographed and filmed him as the flames took hold. (Damage was done, but no one was hurt.) Pavlensky was arrested soon afterwards.

The FSB’s building was inherited directly from the Soviet KGB. Thousands of the regime’s political opponents were tortured and killed behind its austere façade.

Pavlensky has been charged with “vandalism motivated by ideological hatred,” whatever that means, and appeared at the Tagansky District Court several times. At his first appearance he compared his case to those of Crimean activists jailed on false “terrorism” charges – including Oleksandr Kolchenko and Oleg Sentsov – and said he would not address the court further.

Oleksei Chirniy, who was charged along with Kolchenko and Sentsov, was also detained at the Serbsky Institute prior to his trial. His supporters alleged he had been mistreated with psychotropic drugs.

Pavlensky is also awaiting trial for charges arising from an earlier performance, Freedom (Svoboda). In February 2014, days after the removal  of Ukrainian president Viktor

Separation (Otdelenie). Pavel Pavlensky protesting against punishment psychiatry, October 2014. Photo courtesy of Calvert Journal

Yanukovich, he went with collaborators to the Maly Konyushenny Bridge in Saint Petersburg, setting light to car tires and banging dustbin lids, to recreate the atmosphere of the Maidan demonstrations in Kyiv.

Pavlensky was sent to the Serbsky State Scientific Centre for Social and Forensic Psychiatry last month (on January 27) to be observed by doctors. The centre was then closed due to an outbreak of a strong flu-like virus, and Pavlensky’s lawyers have been denied access to their client.

Human rights campaigners are focusing on Pavlensky’s case and Amnesty International have expressed concern about it.

On February 3, in Pavlensky’s absence, the Tagansky District Court extended his detention to March 5. His wife expressed fears for his health in a Facebook post: “We do not know if they are injecting him with drugs, trying to give him pills. We don’t know.”

Meanwhile, artists are protesting a decision by the National Centre for Contemporary Art to throw Pavlensky’s performance out of the contest for this year’s Innovation Prize.

His action at the Lubyanka was included after an online vote by critics. But on February 15, the organizers of the prize struck it off, on the grounds that it had involved an illegal act. Members of the expert committee that advised the organizers were angry; art critic Anna Tolstova quit the committee, saying: “I don’t consider myself obliged to agree with censorship and become part of the repressive machinery of the state.”

Clearly, the Innovation Prize organizing committee has taken a step backwards. In 2010, the prize was won by the Voina group for painting a large phallus on a bridge near FSB headquarters in Saint Petersburg.

Punitive psychiatry has been on the rise in Russia again since the 2011 demonstrations against government ballot-rigging.

In October 2013, Mikhail Kosenko, one of the defendants brought to trial after those demonstrations, was sentenced to indefinite psychiatric treatment after the Serbsky Instititue declared him insane. Psychiatric treatment was also used in the recent case of Crimean activists, three of whom are serving long jail sentences in Russia and are widely regarded as political prisoners.

Pavlensky has protested against punishment psychiatry. In October 2014, he sat on the wall of the Serbsky Institute and cut off his earlobe to make his point. He then wrote: “Armed with psychiatric diagnoses, the bureaucrat in a white lab coat cuts off from society those pieces that prevent him from establishing a monolithic dictate of a single, mandatory norm for everyone.”

But punitive psychiatry goes back much further. It was used in the Soviet Union from (at least) the 1940s, to deal with those who defied its tyrannical, misnamed “socialism”, and became widespread in the 1960s. It was the Serbsky Institute that developed the diagnosis of “sluggish schizophrenia” (vyalotekushchaya shizofreniya) which was widely applied to political dissidents.

Not only were internationally known oppositionists, such as the independent trade union organizer Vladimir Klebanov and the Second World War general Pyotr Grigorenko, confined to psychiatric institutions, but psychiatry was used against large numbers of less-well-known Soviet citizens. (Indeed two western writers who studied the phenomenon in Soviet times concluded that the abuse of psychiatry against prominent dissidents was “probably only the tip of an iceberg.” It had a wide-ranging function in dealing with “social deviants,” “suppressing individuality […] so that the state can maintain a stifling social as well as political control.” Sidney Bloch and Peter Reddaway, Russia’s Political Hospitals, Gollancz 1977, pp. 278-279.)

An early (and typical) case was that of Revolt Pimenov, a maths student who resigned from the Communist Party’s Youth League, was diagnosed as schizophrenic and consigned to a psychiatric hospital – the sentence being lifted when he agreed to rejoin the league! His story is recorded in the marvellous archive of the Chronicle of Current Events, a dissident journal. (Thanks to J. who drew that to my attention!)

Revolt Pimenov in his student days. Photo courtesy of the Chronicle of Current Events

Finally, a thought about Pavlensky’s art. I am pretty conservative in my artistic tastes, but it works wonders for me. What is an artist supposed to do when his government becomes increasingly repressive and supports military mayhem in a neighbouring state? Paint landscapes?

In my view, setting fire to the doors of the Lubyanka was a cry of sanity in an insane world. I’m not blind to the limitations of individual protest, but this protest tried seriously to deal with the state machine’s monstrous corrosion of humanity.

If you are a western leftie thinking “Well, this is hardly the worst example of state repression,” give me some credit. I know. I, too, see the sickening irony in the denunciation of Putin for ordering Syrian children’s deaths to gain diplomatic advantage by people who had little to say about Tony Blair and George Bush ordering Iraqi children’s deaths on a vastly greater scale. Well, you know what, it’s not a competition! Putin’s violence is part of the same process as Tony Blair’s, not some sort of answer to it.

For me, this is about the reality with which my friends, activists in social and labour movements in Russia and Ukraine, have to deal.

If you’re a psychiatrist, please get on to your professional association about that institute. If you’re an artist, please get on to that art centre about that competition. If you’re a letter writer, please follow Amnesty’s advice on protesting to the Russian prosecutor, and if you’re fighting for some other cause, big or small, please keep doing what you’re doing. How else can we deal with the inherent madness of the system under which we live? GL, February 17, 2016

Meaningful art: the Lubyanka ablazePeople & Nature, November 2015

■ For the latest on the Crimean political prisoners, read the website of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

Editor’s Note. A huge thanks to Gabriel Levy for writing this timely and pointed essay and especially for his permission to republish it here.

The Zhanaozen Massacre: Four Years Later

Kazakhstan: who ordered the killings and tortures?
People and Nature
December 13, 2015

Who ordered police to shoot down oil workers demonstrating for fair living standards? Who organised the torture of activists in police cells?

Four years after police killed at least 16 demonstrators and injured 60 more in the oil city of Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, trade unionists and human rights campaigners are demanding answers.

They will spell out their calls for justice again on Wednesday this week, the fourth anniversary of the massacre, on December 16, 2011.

After the killings, some rank-and-file police officers who opened fire were jailed, and some local officials punished for corruption offences. But those who organised and instigated the crackdown have so far escaped justice.

Demonstrators in Uralsk, Kazakhstan, on the third anniversary of the Zhanaozen massacre last year. Photo: R. Uporova/ Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper

Demonstrators in Uralsk, Kazakhstan, on the third anniversary of the Zhanaozen massacre last year. Photo: R. Uporova/ Uralskaya Nedelya newspaper.

The well-documented use of torture against trade union activists after the massacre has gone unpunished.

Demands for an independent international enquiry, by the United Nations and international trade union federations, have not been met.

In the Kazakh oil fields, workers have been told they will be sacked if they dare to mark the anniversary on Wednesday. Activists in Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere will demonstrate at Kazakhstan’s embassies. If you live in another country, you can mark the anniversary by sending a message of support or taking any other type of solidarity action. (See links at the end.)

Here is an update on the campaign for justice for those killed, injured and tortured while fighting for workers’ rights.

Justice for those killed and injured on 16 December 2011

Statements about the Zhanaozen killings by the Kazakh authorities contradict each other, contradict accounts by other witnesses, and are difficult to reconcile with video and audio recordings made on the day.

Trade unionists and international campaign organisations supporting the oil workers’ families fear that, by jailing a small number of officers – all of whom have now been released – the government hoped to cover up the chain of command that led to the killings.

Journalist Saniya Toyken, who is based in the Mangistau region (which includes Zhanaozen), this month explained in an article (link to Radio Azattyq site here, Russian only) that:

■ On 18 December 2011, two days after the Zhanaozen killings, Kazakh internal affairs minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov denied that anyone had ordered police officers to open fire on peaceful demonstrators. He claimed that police were unarmed, but went to fetch Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition after disorder broke out.

■ On the same day, the Kazakh general prosecutor admitted that 15 people had been killed in the course of the forcible response to the oil workers’ demonstration. Ten days later, on 27 December 2011, the prosecutor announced that five officers would be charged for “exceeding their legal powers.” At a trial in April-May 2012, five officers were found guilty of “exceeding their legal powers with the use of firearms.” The indictment against one, police colonel Kabdygali Utegaliev (who received the heaviest sentence, of seven years), referred to him “giving an order to use weapons.”

■ At the trial it was stated that police lieutenant-colonel Bekzhan Bagdabaev, former head of the department for combating extremism of the department for internal affairs, had killed Zhanar Abdikarimova, a peaceful resident of Zhanaozen – and that the same bullet that killed Abdikarimova had also struck Rakhat Tazhmivanov and Rzabek Makhambet. The

Oil workers at Munaifildservis in the Mangistau field at a meeting in February 2014. Photo: Saniya Toiken

Oil workers at Munaifildservis in the Mangistau field at a meeting in February 2014. Photo: Saniya Toiken

charges against three other officers (colonel Erlan Bakytkaliuly, senior lieutenant Rinat Zholdybaev and police captain Nurlan Esbergenov) mentioned deaths of, and injury to, specific victims.

■ Another victim, Bazarbai Kenzhebaev, died as a result of injuries received in police detention after the demonstration. Zhenisbek Temirov, who had been the officer in charge, was also jailed – again on charges of “exceeding his legal powers” – and made to pay 1 million tenge (about $5000) to Kenzhebaev’s family.

■ The verdicts were publicly questioned by Bagdabaev’s wife, Gulzhikhan, who in a media interview said that her husband had not opened fire and had been unjustly punished, whereas those who had used their weapons – and could be clearly seen doing so on videos – had not been brought to justice.

Relatives of massacre victims expressed dissatisfaction with the trial’s outcome, and demanded that charges of murder – rather than “exceeding legal powers” – be brought. In August 2012 they took an appeal to the regional cassation court (which re-examines legal issues, but not evidence). Judge Doszhan Amirov confirmed the trial decision but said that the question of murder charges “remained open.”

The relatives, and human rights organisations who supported them, reacted fiercely to a statement made during the officers’ trial that “unknown police officers used unregistered weapons without permission.”

Asel Nurgazieva, the legal representative of victims’ families, said: “How can police officers be described as ‘unknown’? This would mean that the whole state does not know who it employs and in whose hands it places weapons.”

Max Bokaev of the human rights campaign group Arlan, who acted as a trial observer, said in a recent interview with Toyken that while police officers’ faces were not visible in videos – which were in any case not used as evidence – their voices could be identified from sound recordings. “Now it will be complicated to ascertain who concretely shot and killed people, but those who gave the orders could be identified,” he said.

Ninel Fokina of the Helsinki committee in Almaty pointed out that there was no provision in Kazakh law for civil society to monitor the use of weapons by state agencies.

In addition to the shootings at Zhanaozen, firefighter Serik Kozhaev was killed, and 11 people injured, when police opened fire on demonstrators at the nearby railway station of Shetle on November 16, 2011. A week later, a local internal affairs ministry official, Serik Kozhaev, told journalists that police officers had fired on the crowd.

“That firefighter was on the other side [i.e. the demonstrators’ side]”, Kozhaev said. “Who opened fire? We did! We have the right to use service weapons in life-threatening situations.” Kozhaev claimed that some of the demonstrators were armed, but no evidence of this was brought to court.

One day, hopefully, our campaign efforts will lead to a genuine investigation of the killings. Then, a list of the senior security services officers responsible for the police action – compiled by Saniya Toyken, and reproduced below (“Officials with questions to answer”) – will come in useful.

Justice for trade unionists who were imprisoned and tortured

Security services officers who tortured trade unionists and their supporters  imprisoned after the Zhanaozen events have gone unpunished. These crimes have not even been investigated by the Kazakh authorities.

Thirty-seven Zhanaozen residents were tried in April-May 2012 for their part in the oil workers’ struggle, and 13 of them jailed. (More details here.) The trial judge passed numerous claims of torture, made in court, to the Mangistau district prosecutor’s office, which declined to open a criminal case, citing a lack of evidence. The office did not explain why it chose not to exercise its investigative function.

Kazakh human rights campaigner Erlan Kaliev, who acted as an observer at the oil workers’ trials, wrote on this site last year:

In court, the accused started publicly to deny the testimony that they had given during the investigation. They argued that they had been compelled to give that testimony under the strongest psychological and physical pressure from police officers. They spelled out concrete examples of how torture had been used against them.

The most common methods were suffocation with plastic bags; soaking with cold water at a temperature of minus 20 or minus 30 degrees; and hanging by the hair from the ceiling, as was the case with Roza Tuletaeva. The accused were made to stand for many hours, to sleep on the bare, or even iced-over, floor. They threatened to rape underage children, as became clear from the statements [in court] of Tanatar Kaliev and Roza Tuletaev. [Aleksandr] Bozhenko spoke of how they beat him mercilessly with switches [sheafs of branches] and jumped on him.

What’s more, all the victims gave the names of those who had treated them so brutally. They said that the perpetrators – police officers, prison staff or Committee of National Security operatives – very often made no attempt to cover up their identities. Their first names and surnames are in the court record. But there has been no investigation.

Victims of torture, listed in another recent article by Saniya Toyken (link here, Russian only), include:

■ Maksat Dosmagambetov, oil worker and trade union activist jailed at the 2012 trial and given conditional early release in February this year. He has cancer of his facial bones, apparently caused by the beating he received in police custody. In March, after his release, he travelled to South Korea for treatment. Dosmagambetov had pointed to a police officer and

Police at Zhanaozen on 16 December 2011

Police at Zhanaozen on 16 December 2011

said: “You saw with your own eyes how they beat me and punctured my ears with a staple gun.” Another defendant, Tanatir Kaliev, repeated the claim. (Activists have not published the name of the officer, who has not been charged.)

■ Yesengeldy Abdrakhmanov, an unemployed man from Zhanaozen who was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment but released via an amnesty, told the court that he had contracted tuberculosis as a result of police torture. “I was stripped naked. They poured freezing water over me and beat me.”

■ Shabdol Otkelov, sentenced to five years, said in court that a security services officer “put a cellophane bag over my head and, stuffing it in to my mouth, forced me to confess to the preparation of explosives and to sign papers prepared by an investigator based in Astana [the capital of Kazakhstan].”

■ Roza Tuletaeva, a trade union activist who told the court she had been suffocated and hung by her hair, demanded that the tortures be investigated.

■ Kairat Adilov, sentenced to three years, told how an investigator put a gun to his head and threatened to shoot if he did not confess guilt.

■ Allegations of torture by police, prison officers and other security personnel were also made to the court by Ergazy Zhannyr, Serik Akzhigitov, Islam Shamilov, Bauyrzhan Telegenov, Zharas Besmagambetov, Samat Koyshybaev, Ertai Ermukhanov, Sisen Aspentaev, Zhenis Bopilov and Rasul Mukhanbetov.

■ Trial observers from Open Dialog say that, furthermore, six trial witnesses made allegations of torture in court. One, Aleksandr Bozhenko, who repeated the claims in television interviews, was murdered in unclear circumstances ten days later.

In 2013, Amnesty International accused Kazakhstan of “routinely” using torture, including in the Zhanaozen cases. (Amnesty report downloadable here.) Now some campaigners are calling for a “Zhanaozen list” of officials to be compiled, similar to the “Magnitsky list” drawn up by human rights activists in Russia, which led to the USA sanctioning security services officers involved in the ill-treatment and death in prison of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.

Lyudmyla Kozlovska of the international campaign group Open Dialog, that has championed human rights cases in Kazakhstan, said in an interview with Saniya Toyken that putting together a list would take time. “The question of tortures is not being raised [by the authorities] in Kazakhstan, because it involves people at the highest levels of government.”

The UK connection

There are strong business links between the UK and Kazakhstan. BG Group (former British Gas, now merging with Shell) and other oil companies work there; Kazakh companies raise money through the London markets. Tony Blair, former prime minister, advised Kazakhstan’s government – including specifically encouraging them to hush up the Zhanaozen issue – and UK government ministers, together with Prince Andrew, keep the relationship sweet. GL, 13 December 2015.

■ Send solidarity messages via the Confederation of Labour of Russia (email ktr@ktr.su) and/or via the Justice for Kazakh oil workers facebook page, and/or via gabriel.levy.mail@gmail.com.

Kazakh oil workers information page

Kazakhstan: oil companies threaten activists

Officials with questions to answer

►Kalmukhanbet Kasymov, minister of internal affairs at the time of the Zhanaozen massacre, has twice been reappointed to that position. In 2014 he was awarded the Order of Honour, and in 2015 was given the rank of general-colonel.

►Amanzhol Kabylov, who was head of the department of internal affairs of Mangistau region, and was appointed commandant of Zhanaozen when the state of emergency was declared there after the massacre, has been promoted. He now works as the deputy chairman of the criminal investigation committee of the Astana police.

►Abkrasul Oteshov, former deputy head of the directorate of internal affairs in Zhanaozen, who was accused of torture at the oil workers’ trial, is currently deputy head of the directorate of internal affairs of Munailinsky district of Mangistau region. 

►Former head of the directorate of internal affairs of Zhanaozen, Mukhtar Kozhaev, has been promoted to a position as head of criminal police in Astana.

►Another deputy head of the directorate of internal affairs in Zhanaozen, Nuraly Barzhikov, who has said “I was on the square [where the shootings took place] and I used firearms,” remains at his post.

►Officer Marat Kyzylkuluky, who admitted using firearms, now works with the migration police in Zhanaozen.

►Colonel Ulykbek Myltykov, who said in court that he had not fired on fleeing demonstrators – and after being showed video vidence, said he “did not know why [officers] fired” – is currently head of the administrative police of the department of internal affairs of the Mangistau region.

►Former deputy head of the department of internal affairs of Mangistau region Erzhan Sadenov currently works as the head of the department of internal affairs transport division in Astana.  

__________

Kazakhstan: oil companies threaten activists
People and Nature
December 13, 2015

Oil company managers have warned workers not to demonstrate on the fourth anniversary of the Zhanaozen massacre, Kazakh opposition news sites reported last week.

A fresh wave of unrest is brewing in the oil field after the announcement of redundancies, caused by the falling oil price and company cutbacks. A Kazakh-Chinese drilling company laid off 200 people in August.

Activists jailed after the 2011 strikes – which ended with police killing at least 16, and wounding 60, when they opened fire on protestors on 16 December 2011 – are under special scrutiny. “The security services have

Roza Tuletaeva. Photo: Saniya Toyken

Roza Tuletaeva. Photo: Saniya Toyken

been active, and have carried out ‘preventive discussions’ with activists, especially those who have been released from prison,” Respublika newspaper reported.

“They have promised [the activists] that they will again be put behind bars, especially if they try to influence trade union elections, as happened on 21 November in Zhanaozen.”

Akzhanat Aminov, one of the activists who was jailed and conditionally released, has been given an additional one year suspended sentence. That was a response to his election in June this year as chairman of the trade union committee of Ozenmunaigaz, the largest state-owned oil production company, the socialismkz.info site reported.

Roza Tuletaeva, a prominent trade union activist who was jailed at the Zhanaozen trial, said last month in a telephone interview with Radio Azattyq that she is back at work in the well drilling division of Ozenmunaigaz. She expressed concern for the condition of Maksat Dosmagambetov, her fellow activist who is seriously ill following torture in detention. Roza added that she remains in touch with the 12 other workers jailed at the Zhanaozen trial.

While the Zhanaozen prisoners have now been released, the politician Vladimir Kozlov of the democratic movement Alga was last week denied conditional release terms. He was jailed in a general crackdown following the oil workers’ strikes, of which he was a prominent supporter. GL, 13 December 2015.

Editor’s Note. My profound thanks to Gabriel Levy for his permission to reproduce these articles here.

Gabriel Levy: What’s Really Going on in Ukraine?

Not all western leftists are mindless Putinist running dogs, reflexively yapping “Fascist! Fascist!” at every Ukrainian they see dashing across their computer screens or imagining that the frenzied dashing is caused by wads of CIA-donated dollars stuffed in neo-Nazi pockets.

Here is Gabriel Levy’s absolutely essential two-part analysis of recent events in Ukraine. It is based on actual thinking, real facts, on-the-ground observation, and a solid, thorough knowledge of the country and its history.

Part One: “Ukraine 1. Yanukovich’s end is a beginning”

Part Two: “Ukraine 2. A political earthquake for Europe and Russia”