The situation in Zhanaozen has been tense since violence and unrest erupted in the city in December 2011. Oil workers from the Uzenmunaigaz unit of KazMunaiGas Exploration Production went on strike in May 2011 over wages, prompting the state energy firm to terminate nearly 100 employees. A month later, some of the fired workers began gathering in Zhanaozen's main square to demand reinstatement, better pay and the right to form unions.
These demonstrations continued peacefully until Kazakhstan's Independence Day on Dec. 16, 2011, when police attempted to break up the protests, prompting some of the protesters to destroy a stage set up for holiday festivities. Police responded by firing tear gas, and gunfire was reported between police and the demonstrators, many of which were wearing their work uniforms. The clash sparked multiple days of larger riots, during which dozens of buildings across the city were set on fire, including the municipal government building and the Uzenmunaigaz office. According to government officials, the violence left 15 people dead, nearly 100 injured and 70 others arrested. The region had never before experienced such violent unrest.
The government took numerous immediate measures to quell the unrest, including declaring a state of emergency in Mangistau and dismissing the regional governor. While tensions remained, no additional immediate instances of violence were reported, and energy production in the region continued without disruption. Protests by workers demanding better pay and working conditions emerged in recent months in other Kazakh energy and industrial districts, but the government addressed these peacefully. Mangistau has largely remained calm.
In July, however, Zhanaozen again began to experience disruptions connected to the December riots. Reports of a security buildup of nearly 600 police officers and soldiers in the town emerged July 25 ahead of appeals hearings scheduled for the beginning of August for several people detained and convicted of involvement in the December turmoil. Most of the appeals, including those from police officers sentenced for committing excessive violence during the riots, were dismissed. Security personnel sealed off Zhanaozen's main square, allegedly to prevent supporters of the convicted workers from protesting in solidarity. The security forces remained until the day after the appeals hearings ended on Aug. 2, suggesting that the Kazakh government had anticipated a negative reaction.
While the town had remained calm until the Aug. 4 cafe explosion, the roots of the Zhanaozen riots — primarily worker grievances about working conditions and distrust toward the local administration and security forces — do not appear to have been resolved. The cafe is located just 100 meters (about 330 feet) from the city's police department and is known as a popular lunch spot for police officials, but whether the explosion was indeed an accident — as claimed by local authorities — or was connected to town's recent troubles remains unclear. Regardless, the region had already been showing signs of instability resulting from the riots and their aftermath. And while Kazakhstan's security challenges are not limited to Mangistau, the oil-rich region remains key for assessing the country's broader security environment.