ZHANAOZEN, Kazakhstan – State news media churn out paeans to Kazakhstan's leader ahead of Sunday's parliamentary elections and the governing party is expecting an easy win, but in this isolated oil-field town, the country's distressed economy and memories of police violence five years ago cast a mood of mistrust.
The vote comes amid a collapse in Kazakhstan's economic fortunes caused by the falling price for oil, its main export commodity. The government announced in February that it expects economic growth to slow to 0.5 percent this year, a massive drop from the buoyant expansion it has largely enjoyed over the past 15 years. Inflation is spiraling — up to 15 percent early this year — and the currency has lost about 30 percent of its value since last year.
"Nothing good will come of the elections. Prices are going up, and they will continue to go up," said Altynai Dunaeva, a trader at a bazaar in Zhanaozen. "Promises get made, but they won't be kept. There will be no change."
For many in the town of about 65,000, painful memories of the fatal police shootings of striking oil workers further darken their view.
"The bloodletting of the past will not be forgotten. It will stay in my blood, in my memories. Only when I die, when the blood leaves my body, will these memories finally disappear," said Sholpan Utekeyeva. Her husband was shot in the leg in the December 2011 violence, but survived. Fourteen people were killed.
The confrontations broke out following six months of rallies and calls for salary increases and were caused, say the oil workers, by the provocative behavior of the local authorities.
Authorities were quick to brush the events under the carpet. Five police officers were jailed for their actions and have since been released.
The Nur Otan party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the only leader post-Soviet Kazakhstan has had, is expected to cruise to an easy victory and retain its control of the lower house of parliament.
The closest thing to an actual opposition party in Kazakhstan, Alga! (Forward!), was dispatched into oblivion following the Zhanaozen events, which the authorities claimed had been instigated by its leader, Vladimir Kozlov. He is now serving a 7 1/2 year jail sentence.
Accordingly, the elections will mainly serve to renew Nur Otan's control over 107-member lower house of parliament, known as the Mazhilis. The party now holds 83 seats. Two so-called "constructive opposition" parties hold another 15 seats and the remaining nine are appointed by a presidential advisory body.
Nobody expects a competition, so the only purpose of the election appears to be gauging how people are reacting to the marked decline in the quality of life.
"Any election is a chance to take the temperature of the population, because people in the regions can express their views, make their suggestions, and this is a good way to evaluate the mood in the population," said Nurlan Yerimbetov, head of a semi-independent local election monitoring organization.
Anti-government protests are rare and typically tiny. Critics of the government are subject to pressure and intimidation.
Yerimbetov said the economic crisis might even be helping the government.
"It is a feature of our Kazakh mentality, and in other countries, that when times are tough, people unite . they think as one," he said.
The authorities are casting the elections as a form of renewal in that the Nur Otan party list includes several youthful faces and a smattering of national celebrities. They include current boxing middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, two-time Olympic gold medal winning weightlifter Ilya Ilyin and a pop heartthrob called Kairat Nurtas.
That seems to have persuaded quite a few people.
"New generations continue to come through and we always need new ideas and new opportunities. So we must constantly bring in new blood," said Yerzhan Bekeshev, a sales manager in the capital, Astana. "Personally, I will vote for our party, Nur Otan."