The Constitution as a Tool of Great Use to Berezovka Residents Fighting for their Rights

Lukpan Akhmedyarov
Uralsk Weekly
December 15, 2004

The Uralsk Weekly has written several times about the problems facing the residents of the village of Berezovka, who have become the guarantors of the interests of the international corporations developing the Karachaganak oil and gas condensate field, and our own government that is handing the field over to them. The international environmental NGO Crude Accountability and the Kazakhstani environmental NGOs Green Salvation and Ecotan are taking a stand on behalf of the villagers.

This past weekend, the villagers of Berezovka in the Burlinsky raion twice violated the law and public order. First they tried to give blood for analysis, and then they read the Constitution of Kazakhstan.

CITIZEN, COME WITH US!

“It was terrible. I have never seen anything like it, not even in Uzbekistan,” says American citizen Kate Watters indignantly. She usually speaks in Russian with ease, but has difficulty selecting the words to describe the events of the past few days. “The police grabbed people by the arms and wanted to take them to the police precinct.”

Kate Watters, an American representative of the international organization Crude Accountability, has come to Berezovka for the second time to meet with Svetlana Anosova, the leader of the initiative group demanding relocation of the village. She shares with the local residents how people in other countries are working to defend the environment from oil companies. Each visit by the American to Berezovka evokes a nervous reaction from KPO and the local authorities. After all, this American whom they deem objectionable teaches the residents of Berezovka “things she should not,” poses uncomfortable questions to the company, and is completely without fear in the face of the authorities. This past Saturday, local authorities attempted to instill in her this very feeling.

On this day, approximately 60 Berezovka residents traveled to Aksai to give blood samples for analysis. The results of the analysis should demonstrate to what extent the illnesses of Berezovka residents are related to emissions from the field. Among those who came to give blood were children up to age 15 and adults over the age of 45. According to scientists, people in these age categories are most sensitive the impacts of chemical pollution in the environment. For some reason, this medical exercise aroused the interest of the police. According to eyewitnesses, people in civilian clothes and police uniforms began to detain Berezovka residents from exiting the clinic. The villagers were interesting in finding out why these individuals came to the clinic and tried to take them to the police precinct! The police actions evoked outrage among those gathered and nearly led to physical violence on the part of the so-called guards of order. With force, they tried to seat people in their cars to take them to the police district.

“During this time, I was inside the clinic talking with the doctors,” says Kate Watters, “and learned of this scandal from two men who requested that I speak with them. They said that I had organized an action that was violating order. I said that this is not an action, that people are simply giving blood for analysis. I showed them our agreement with the head of the clinic. Then those two asked me to come with them to the raion Akimat (regional government), saying that the raion Akim (regional governor) wanted to meet me. I stated that I would come when I was free and asked them to introduce themselves. Only one of them showed me official employee identification from the raion public prosecutor’s office, the second didn’t say a word.”

Later these same two men took the American away in an unmarked car with no license plate to the raion Akimat. There they introduced her to a man who they named as the Deputy Director to the raion Akim. They told the American that she was violating Kazakhstani law, and demanded that she write an official statement pledging that she would not participate in a seminar planned for the following day and that she would not help Svetlana Anosova! Kate refused. For roughly an hour, they told the American that she does not have the right to collaborate with Svetlana Anosova.

“The raion Deputy Director told me that I could help Svetlana carry pails of water, and nothing more. In parting he said that the same two men would return me to the clinic, adding, ‘Don’t be afraid of them, they won’t touch you. You can go with them without fear.’ I didn’t understand why I should fear them in the first place,” says Kate.

OH, THAT I MIGHT HAVE LIVED SO!

Despite all of this, the seminar took place as scheduled, following the events in Aksai. In the ten days leading up to the seminar, the Akimat of the village district demanded that Svetlana Anosova submit a written request for permission to conduct the seminar. However, according to the law, such requests are not required when conducting educational exercises. Nevertheless, Svetlana wrote a request and delivered it to the district Akim. After lengthy reflection, the Akim granted Svetlana permission. It was decided that the seminar would take place in the district’s House of Culture. But two days later they called Svetlana Anosova from the raion Akimat and reported that the permission had been revoked.

“I requested that they provide me with a written document substantiating the refusal with citations to articles of law,” says Svetlana Anosova, “I told them that until I received such a document, I would not cancel the seminar.”

The raion Akimat did not send any papers, and on the morning of December 12th, the village residents began to assemble at the doors of the school. By order of the authorities, all community buildings were closed on that day. The House of Culture, the school and even the medical facility were under lock and key. Even children practicing for a soccer match fell victim to the authorities’ vigilance. The Sunday practice was cancelled as the children could not access the school’s gymnasium.

“Our physical education director is required to train the children for Independence Day. He is supposed to take them to Aksai for a holiday competition. The same authorities who required this soccer practice have now shut down everything,” explains the mother of one young soccer player upon arriving at the seminar. “And after all this they want our children to grow up healthy.” The seminar takes place anyway in the small building in which the district music school has been set up.

“Sveta, how are you feeling? Thank God for you! I didn’t sleep all night, thinking that they had arrested you last night in Aksai,” exclaims an elderly woman who came to the seminar to see Svetlana Anosova.

Just as the music school fills with people, several police cars approach the building, escorting employees from the raion and district akimats. The entire royal army declines to participate in the seminar and, after checking my documents, quietly mills about outside.

“But in vain. It wouldn’t hurt them to hear what I am going to talk about during this seminar. This is about their actions, they are poorly versed in the Constitution,” begins Olga Yakovleva, a Moscow-based lawyer, who educates citizens about the law and defending the public’s environmental rights.

The largest room of the music school–quite modest in size–cannot accommodate all the participants. People sit in the hallway. Olga Yakovleva begins by passing out brochures with the text of the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan.

“Read it: Every citizen has the right to life. So, we are going to carefully read the Constitution today. In each place where it is written ‘every citizen of Kazakhstan’ substitute in ‘I, my child, my family.’ Remember that the Constitution is not about some unknown people in an unknown country, but about each of you. These are your personal rights written here. And when we study other laws today, apply each of the articles to your own life.

According to Olga Yakovleva, she has already been studying our legislation for several days and has not ceased to be amazed by the democratic nature of our laws.

“Respect your Constitution,” she says to those gathered. “It was written for you. There are many norms and laws in your Constitution of which there are no traces in the Russian Constitution. Trust me as a lawyer when I tell you that you can conquer mountains with this Constitution. You need only to learn how to utilize it.”

During the six-hour seminar, a few dozen residents of Berezovka studied the laws of their country. Elderly women in soft wool scarves and men with calloused hands leafed through the thin pages of the Constitution, clicking their tongues in surprise: “You have come here with information that we didn’t know until today.” From the corner of the room someone adds: “Oh, that I might have lived so!”

After the coffee-break, which here is called “eating tea,” the seminar participants shift their attention to studying environmental protection legislation. They study the right of the public to obtain reliable information about the development of oil and gas fields, not forgetting to apply this article to their own lives: Its not the public that has the right, but I who has the right! In the middle of the exercise, a representative from the akimat enters the silent room. His presence is noted and he is invited to join in the study of the Constitution. The bureaucrat–brushing aside the brochure passed his way–hastily retreats.

PROTECT SVETLANA!

People are animated as the leave the seminar, with copies of the Constitution in their hands. After the legal education seminar they already know precisely how the police will respond, as the police are in the habit of going from house to house, forcing people to renounce their signatures on appeals to the authorities. But the seminar helped them to definitively and clearly articulate their demands. The new demands of the residents of Berezovka are articulated as follows: Either relocate us or close the field! As they learned at the seminar, they have the right to demand both actions. Just as it is impossible to clean the stinking gas from the air in a day, it is not possible to take the fear away from these people. A few people later approached the trainers and me with requests to protect Svetlana Anosova from the verbal attacks by the authorities.

“We are afraid for her. Now they will not leave her in peace. They will hound and persecute her. Protect her, if you can.” Svetlana and all who are part of the initiative group are frequently threatened, people say.

During their time in Berezovka, the seminar organizers themselves received significant threats.

“I have been in Berezovka since December 8th and there has not been one day when the district militia officer has not paid me a visit in the evening,” explains Aleksey Knizhnikov, coordinator of this program for Crude Accountability. “Every evening he checks on whether or not I am here and if I might be drinking vodka. I asked him why he does this. He replied, I am watching so that you stay inside at night and do not go outside. It is dangerous for you.”

During my day in Berezovka, it was as if I had traveled back in time. I don’t want to believe that all that I have seen here is occurring in my lifetime in my country. In a country of unbridled bureaucratic freedoms and a forgotten Constitution.

INSET 1: The international environmental nongovernmental organization Crude Accountability has been active for nearly two years. Its members work in the countries of Central Asia, providing support to nongovernmental environmental organizations.

INSET 2: Kate Watters: “I asked the KPO management whether they would feel any responsibility to the residents of Berezovka in the event of an accident at the field. They replied, ‘Only morally’.”

 

Translation by Crude Accountability