When a few hundred oil workers in southwestern Kazakhstan launched a strike to demand higher wages in early May, no one expected the protest would last long or have much of an impact.
But what began as a small-scale strike has awoken the country's long dormant labor movement, and is growing into the greatest organized challenge the Kazakh government has faced in 10 years.
"We will continue [our protest] until the end," said one striker in the port city of Aqtau, who gave his name only as Kelbaev. "As long as we don't get what we are demanding, until we get higher wages, we will remain here [on strike]."
The strikes have expanded in scope and scale. The initial protest at the Karazhanbas oil field near Aqtau has swelled to include thousands of oil workers.
Not far from Karazhanbas, transportation workers are striking at the OzenMunaiGaz company, disrupting oil deliveries. Miners' and gas-workers' unions have expressed solidarity, and in the northern city of Kokshetau, investors in the KazRosInvestproyekt limited-liability company have been protesting for three weeks.
According to Kelbaev, the strike in Aqtau is falling on deaf ears in the capital, Astana, 1,700 kilometers away. "We have been speaking only with local officials," he said. "No one from the government [in Astana] has come and met with us. They are not even paying attention."
But the ultimate goal is to be heard by the Kazakh government, which was accustomed to large protests in the 1990s when its seat was in Almaty and the population was clamoring over unpaid wages.
Since then, however, the country's rising oil revenue and accompanying improvement in the standard of living has helped relegate protests to small, local affairs centered on narrow issues.
The opposition is watching events closely, with parliamentary elections scheduled for 2012, hoping to imitate these rallies and tap into popular sentiment during next year's election campaign.
The stakes are high, with both registered and unregistered parties preparing to enter a parliament whose seats are filled entirely by members of the ruling party, Nur-Otan.
Radio Free Europe, Wed Jun 15 2011