'Do not expect any justice in Zhanatas'
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union. How does this small city in southern Kazakhstan, which lost half its population to migration and most of its jobs to industrial decline, cope today?
“The electricity was only on for two hours a day. It was hard for people to pay rent. The entire infrastructure was destroyed.” This is how Pernebay Duisenbin, a writer living in the town of Zhanatas, southern Kazakhstan, remembers the 1990s.
“We used to have the largest construction factory in Kazakhstan,” Duisenbin continues. Today, Zhanatas is home to some 24,000 residents, less than half of the 57,000 who used to live here in the 1980s.
“Now there is almost nothing left,” Duisenbin says. “There was also a factory that made about 2,000 different products: spare parts for machines, tractors, mining equipment and wonderful lathes.”
The town’s main businesses are still connected to the phosphate industry, which is what originally brought Soviet planners to build a town here in the 1960s. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Zhanatas received supplies and funds from Moscow, but since then the town has faced a crisis: most of the population has left for jobs elsewhere, while those who stayed behind live in poverty.
In the early 1990s, fast-paced privatisation and ownership changes across Kazakhstan’s industrial sector had a severe effect on employment in its monotowns, which were built specifically to fill the quotas of the old Soviet plan. In 1997–98, the effects of the Russian rouble crisis and lack of investment led to labour strikes around Zhanatas.
Today, Zhanatas is typical for its remoteness, how it has been left behind by central government – and because its residents have to make serious efforts to find solutions to their problems. Why do people still live here and how do they survive on a salary of only a few hundred dollars a month? Why do some young people decide to come back here after university? And what is the future for cities like Zhanatas?
In partnership with independent Kazakh media Vlast.kz, openDemocracy is publishing a translated and abridged version of their latest reportage from Zhanatas.
The birth of Zhanatas’s phosphate industry has a remarkably precise date, according to locals: 2 November 1964. This is when development of the local phosphate mine began. A year later, Zhanatas’ first residential neighbourhood was constructed.
“There was an influx of people from Vladivostok, Moscow, Ukraine. At the time, the population of the city was mainly Slavic. Then many more people came here,” says Pernebay Duisenbin, who has lived in the city since 1996.
According to Duisenbin, while average monthly salaries elsewhere in Soviet Kazakhstan were 100 roubles, residents of Zhanatas received 150 roubles and teachers an additional 25%. The idea was to use higher salaries and new homes to attract people, particularly specialists, to this new “phosphate town”.
Now only two large factories operate in Zhanatas: local Kazphosphate and Russian chemical giant EuroChem. According to official statistics, these factories currently employ 1,829 people.
Both before and immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, residents of Zhanatas experienced several “hungry” periods – when food, jobs and money were scarce. Today, many people are without jobs, while others work in the service sector. Abandoned five-storey apartment buildings still stand empty – traces of the decline of the past several decades, which are yet to be erased.
However, Duisenbin says he does see changes for the better: new infrastructure is under way, old apartment blocks are being rebuilt and entrepreneurs are starting businesses. Indeed, compared to images of Zhanatas from five years ago, the town does look better.
No way out
You can get to Zhanatas in several ways – by bus from Taraz (daily at 6pm), by train (once a week) or by car. The road from Taraz, the nearest regional centre 145 kilometres away, usually takes no more than two hours, though twice that in winter, due to weather conditions.
When we arrived in town, residents in one neighbourhood were holding a protest. The authorities had conducted an emergency shutdown of the heating system, though the next day, officials said that the town’s boilers had been restarted and all buildings were receiving heat. (There was no heating in the hotel where we were staying until the evening of 11 February.)
“There has been no heating for three days,” says Murat, one of the protesters. “A week ago, they turned off the heating at 10pm, and then at 6am they turned it on again. This is how they saved fuel oil. During frosts and snowstorms, the heating was at full capacity. I think that’s why there is now a shortage of fuel oil.”
According to residents, no one warned them that the heating was going to be shut off. “We pay 5,000 tenge [£8] a month for heating. We thought there were technical problems, since there has been no heating in the city for three days. But it turns out the fuel oil has run out. Nobody came to help,” says another protester, Clara.
Zhanatas has six small neighbourhoods. Buses are infrequent, so it’s easier to get around on foot. Small hills appear between the apartment blocks. Narrow steps lead up one of these hills; the whole town uses this route to walk to the school and the hospital. A row of small shops, cafés and pawnshops line a two-way street. This is the centre and, at night, the most illuminated part of the town. It’s difficult to walk on the icy pavements which are dotted with holes; there’s practically no asphalt on them.
One elderly woman asks for our help. “Daughter, help me get down,” she says. “Show me the way.”
Ainash (not her real name) is 80 years old. Every day she walks through wasteland and the ruins of abandoned houses to buy food at the market. “Everyone is unemployed in Zhanatas. There is no agriculture, no livestock, no harvest,” she says angrily.
Ainash’s son works as a school carpenter earning 20,000 tenge (£34) a month, while she lives on her pension. (The official minimum monthly wage in Kazakhstan is 42,500 tenge, or £72.) Her two grandchildren go to high school, and her son’s salary goes to educate the children, so the family lives on Ainash’s pension. “My father was a hero of the Soviet Union, he fought in Germany. Since I am the daughter of a war veteran, my pension should be raised, but this does not happen. Don’t expect any justice in Zhanatas, don’t think you’ll find any truth here,” she says.
Ainash tells us how to get to the market, then sits down in a snowdrift to rest.
At the entrance to the market, you can see different goods: clothes for children and adults, shoes, toys, building materials and even fresh fish. There are few customers. One of the women selling children's clothes comes up to us and asks why we’ve come to Zhanatas. We are, it seems, very different from the locals.
Aigul moved to Zhanatas from a nearby region. At the time, the municipal authorities were giving out houses free of charge, and she decided to take advantage of this opportunity. Now her only income is selling baby clothes. “The town is changing, but there is no trade,” says Aigul. “My husband is unemployed and I have been working in the market for eight years. If enough customers come, then I get 2,000 tenge a day; if not, then only 1,000. Of course, this is not enough.”
Aigul really wants to leave Zhanatas, but needs money to do so. She cannot sell her house at a profit – a one-room apartment on the main street costs 500,000 tenge (£850); a three-room apartment, renovated and furnished, costs three million tenge (£5,100). Standalone houses are even cheaper.
“It’s so harmful”
“My mother couldn’t even find a vest to buy for me when I was born – she had to make everything herself.” Lyubov Struzhevskaya was born in Zhanatas, and her mother was born in the nearby town of Karatau, where she worked in technical control at the phosphate processing facility. According to Struzhevskaya, her mother often told her how people began to leave the town en masse in the early 1990s, when the “hungry period” began.
“There was nothing at all in the shops,” she continues. “Money depreciated, people carried it round in suitcases. There was no light, no water, no gas. As the independence of Kazakhstan in 1991 came closer, it seems, things got better: shops were opened, the tenge replaced the rouble. Children whose parents worked in factories lived well. They even had Kinder eggs. But for us, life was hard.”
Struzhevskaya’s mother lost her job at the phosphate plant several years before she was due to retire (a regular occurence, apparently). The family was forced to take leftover food from the market, to avoid having to steal food. Later, her mother got a job as a caretaker, and Struzhevskaya herself, at the age of 12, started work in a sewing workshop. A sewing machine still saves her in difficult times.
“From 1996 to 1999, we had another hunger period. We didn’t have cats and dogs in Zhanatas – people ate them. It was the only meat one could afford. There was also an outbreak of tuberculosis, which lasted until 2007. If someone made pies from leftovers, neighbours stole them. You’d go out into the street, you come home, and the pies were gone.”
Struzhevskaya realised she would never be able to leave her home town. After college, she got a job at the Kazphosphate plant in the electrical laboratory, while still working as a seamstress and technician on the side. Her mother died early – she had diabetes and heart problems – and she now lives with her six-year-old son.
Struzhevskaya and her son live in a once abandoned high-rise building that has been rebuilt. The restoration– or demolition – of such buildings in Zhanatas started only four years ago, when the EuroChem factory opened in the town.
According to Struzhevskaya, stealing from apartment buildings started when people began to leave the city en masse. “There was nothing to live on, so everyone climbed into the apartment blocks and pulled out the wiring, copper, iron, aluminum, hollowed out the stairs. And then they rented the half-destroyed apartments in order to get at least some money. Our city is very criminal. The entrances to these abandoned buildings were sealed shut, because they began to find corpses inside. And they closed off all the roofs. There was a period when our teenagers jumped from the rooftops because of exams.”
Now Struzhevskaya is queuing at the city’s labour exchange, to find work or, sometimes, to receive unemployment benefits. She’ll take on any job – she sews curtains, cleans shops and neighbours’ apartments, and also peels potatoes and carrots for big wedding celebrations.
"Everyone in Zhanatas has dental problems, because acetic acid is used in the factories, and it ruins your teeth. Many have enlarged thyroid glands, diabetes. Everyone is registered with a neuropathologist"
She complains about problems with healthcare: her first pregnancy ended in a stillbirth, and her second child was born with hydrocephalus, when spinal fluid accumulates in the brain. The boy was given various diagnoses, which were later removed and then reconfirmed. “We are also registered with a psychiatrist, and we are in the health centre every six months. But they won’t give the child official disability status,” says Struzhevskaya.
She connects her son’s health problems with the town’s industry.
“Phosphates are mined here. And uranium used to be mined, but no one advertises this. Some ore has traces of uranium. But no one talks about this, to avoid paying benefits to people. At the factory, we were given a glass of milk a day for working in harmful conditions – that’s ‘harmful conditions’ for you.
“We take samples from phosphate rock, mix them with acids – and we’re breathing all this in. It’s in all of us. Everyone in Zhanatas has dental problems, because acetic acid is used in the factories, and it ruins your teeth. Many have enlarged thyroid glands, diabetes. Everyone is registered with a neuropathologist – there are 30 to 50 people queuing a day, we can’t get in.”
“I fight for justice”
There are two main medical institutions in Zhanatas: a private clinic and the regional hospital.
“I wanted to take you to the head physician, so that you could meet and interview her. But, as you can see, she is not here,” says Zoya Amantayeva, who helps us find the way to the hospital.
Amantayeva has been living and working as a nurse in Zhanatas for over 20 years. On the morning of 11 February, she was unable to get to work due to weather conditions, like several other employees – she only managed to make it after lunch.
“We have a maternity hospital. But it has no obstetrician-gynecologist,” Amantayeva says. “Doctors are unable to perform a vaginal delivery or a caesarean. Women in labour have to go to the hospital in Taraz to give birth. Many are afraid to go to the obstetrics department in Zhanatas, as many women have lost their children, or died themselves.” Amantayeva took her daughter-in-law to Taraz when she was ready to give birth.
According to Amantayeva, Zhanatas ranks first in the Zhambyl region for incorrect diagnoses. She experienced this problem herself when a relative came to visit her and began feeling pain in her chest. Doctors decided to put her on a drip, without knowing that water was collecting in the woman’s heart and a drip was therefore not recommended. Two hours later, Amantayeva’s relative died.
‘There was no preparation for coronavirus, we were not told anything’
The first outbreak of coronavirus in Zhanatas happened in July. This was the worst period of the pandemic in Kazakhstan, with up to 2,000 new cases a day and no free beds in hospitals throughout the country, as well as a shortage of medicine. Throughout the pandemic, official statistics have been in serious doubt.
Zhanatas was not prepared for the outbreak, says Amantayeva, who had to do her nursing work without proper PPE. She washed the floors, cleaned the wards and looked after patients. According to her, each patient was on their own.
“There was no preparation for coronavirus, we were not told anything,” says Amantayeva. “There were days when we went to the morgue four or five times. This happened both day and night. Many people were sent to Taraz, but, unfortunately, they also died. Since I worked with patients with coronavirus, they were supposed to pay me – by order of the president – 850,000 tenge [£1,450]. I was paid only 100,000 [£170]. After that I didn't receive any money.”
She also contracted COVID-19 and had to stay at home for 20 days, but hospital doctors forbade her from taking a test for coronavirus infection. The reason, according to Amantayeva, is that the intensive care unit could be quarantined if the authorities had found out about the nurse's positive test. And it contained the only ventilators in the city.
“Many doctors who worked with patients during the pandemic were compensated. For some reason, it was the nurses who were left with nothing,” says Amantayeva.
“The manager told many of us to be quiet and not complain, otherwise we would be fired. And in our hospital, many nurses are single mothers. They are afraid to speak, because, working here, they manage to earn a living, pay off loans and buy food for home.”
Amantayeva says that now she can’t get a welfare payment of two million tenge (£3,400), which is awarded to Kazakhstani healthcare workers who contracted the coronavirus while working with patients. “They tell me there is no money. But even those doctors who did not go on sick leave and did not get coronavirus received it. And now the doctors are asking me to prove that I worked at all during the outbreak. All the documents that I handed over to the management in order to receive compensation were lost. They are nowhere to be found,” she says indignantly.
Bauyrzhan Balgabay was born in Zhanatas, but went to university in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. In 2016, he returned to his home town and started working at a youth resource centre. Now he runs various youth projects and helps large and low-income families, as well as people with disabilities. It seems impossible to find a more positive person in Zhanatas.
“If a person is looking for something, they will always find it. For example, our factories always need people,” he remarks.
In Balgabay’s opinion, every resident can find a well-paid job or open his own business, which will be supported by the akimat, or mayor’s office. “We have different programmes – anyone can bring a business plan and receive grants ranging from 550,000 to three million tenge. If you go into a café now, you will see there are lots of customers. People spend time with children, go to different places. This shows that the situation in the town is better than before. It’s just that many people live modestly.”
Balgabay believes that most of the young people in the city are in business or work in factories. Schoolchildren and students participate in charity events organised by Balgabay.
“Several roads were repaired in the city last year,” he continues. “Also we had new streetlights installed, and the town is brighter. If we talk about healthcare, during the coronavirus quarantine businessmen and high-ranking officials of the district donated seven ventilators to the city. Now there are five schools and two colleges in Zhanatas. I cannot say that we have a bad or very good education. It’s average.”
Balgabay, like other representatives of Zhanatas’s akimat, was very keen to see that only good things about the town would appear in our story. “I’ve heard only good things about you. I think and hope that you will show our city from the best side,” Darikha Umbetiyarova, press secretary for the regional authorities, wrote in a message. She refused to meet, saying that she was in hospital.
Zhanatas, it seems, managed to survive the 1990s, and is changing today – but the authorities are still living in that era. The town’s remoteness, and residents’ dependence on the municipal authorities only increase this effect
The head of the akimat’s cultural department, Saltanat Zhaksapaylova, unexpectedly turned up before we went to interview writer Pernebay Duissenbin. Zhaksapaylova also expressed her hope that there would be no negative reflections on Zhanatas in our story.
On the last day of our stay in Zhanatas, we received seemingly endless calls from another man, who turned out to be a deputy on the town council, or maslikhat. He was quite insistent in asking whether we were “for the people or the authorities”. Balgabay repeatedly invited us for a walk on the last day of our trip.
Zhanatas, it seems, managed to survive the 1990s, and is changing today – but the authorities are still living in that era. The town’s remoteness, and residents’ dependence on the municipal authorities only increase this effect. But the people who live here still want basic things: for the heating to work in winter, for hospitals to run as they should, and for life in the town to be safe.
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