The Kazakh government has arrested a dozen activists from all over the country ahead of protests against the sale and lease of farmland planned on May 21.
Though President Nursultan Nazarbayev has moved to defuse opposition by postponing the controversial provisions of the latest land reforms, the authorities are still cracking down because they fear that the demonstrations could grow into wider, Ukrainian Euromaidan-style protests for real political reform amid the economic problems the country is experiencing as a result of low oil and other commodity prices.
Speaking at a government meeting on May 18, President Nazarbayev re-emphasised that he had imposed a moratorium until next year on controversial amendments to the Land Code envisaging sales of farmland via auctions and extending the leases of farmland to foreigners from 10 to 25 years.
The amendments, adopted in November 2015 and expected to come into force on July 1, had sparked unprecedented large-scale street protests that started in the oil capital of Atyrau on April 24 and spread to the other oil cities of Aktobe, Aktau and Oral (also spelt as Uralsk), and further to Semey, Astana and Almaty. Zhanaozen, which was the scene of violent unrest in December 2011 when clashes between striking oil workers and security forces resulted in at least 15 deaths, also held a rally against the sale of farmland.
The population believes the leases of farmland will encourage Chinese expansion into Kazakhstan and even the eventual loss of land to China.
“I’ve signed a decree on a number of provisions of land legislation. A relevant commission was set up and started working, and its first sitting caused a wide resonance. All members of the commission should work out a coordinated position on improve the legislation on land,” Nazarbayev said in reference to a newly-formed commission on land reforms, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev and made up of government officials, MPs and public figures, which held its first sitting on May 14 lasting for seven hours. “Everyone who is really concerned about land should be able to speak.”
In addition to the moratorium and commission, Nazarbayev also ordered the re-establishment of a Ministry of Information and Communications, which will police the media and social networks, and monitor the public mood and rapidly react to it. His former spokesman, Dauren Abayev, was appointed to head the ministry.
“It is a complicated time now and Kazakh citizens don’t want the Ukrainian [Euromaidan] events in Kazakhstan – I know this and let everyone hear this. But those who want to bring [Euromaidan] here [should know that] we will take the harshest measures so they know – and don’t say that I didn’t warn them!” Nazarbayev said earlier this month.
In order to prevent a Euromaidan-style revolt in Kazakhstan and satisfy the middle class’s growing demands for change, Nazarbayev ordered the government to conduct “studies of public opinion on the most acute topics and issues, and analysis of the population’s demand for information and its expectations”.
Amid the unauthorised protests in major urban centres, activists in the country’s second largest city of Shymkent, the capital of the densely-populated and rural South Kazakhstan Region, applied to local authorities for permission to hold a rally on May 21. The date has now been widely accepted as a nationwide call for protest.
The authorities have taken the situation seriously and have moved to pre-empt the rallies by arresting the most vocal activists ahead of the protest weekend: according to Azattyq Radio, the Kazakh Service of the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), police arrested and harassed more than a dozen activists in Atyrau, Oral, Astana, Almaty, Zhezkazgan and Taldykorgan on May 17 alone, jailing them to three to 15 days and imposing fines for the administrative offences of calling for protests and discussing them on Facebook. In Shymkent, police issued a summons for Azattyq’s regional correspondent Dilara Isa and the editor of the local newspaper Temirqazyk-oy, Anar Suleyeva, “in connection with the May 21 rally”.
The arrests were accompanied by government warnings to other potential protesters that its response will be harsh: Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov said that “all issues have already been solved and a state commission is working and discussing everything. There is no need to hold rallies”.
However, he also issued a warning: “There should be order. A certain group of people cannot violate general order as they will hinder the transport and of course we will take measures,” he said.
Almaty city Prosecutor Berik Asylov also joined the chorus: “Today [May 16] the Almaty city administration refused to permit public rallies on land issues on May 21, In connection with this I warn all residents of Almaty and users of social media against the violation of the law.”
Nurtay Kozhakhanov, leader of the Azat Democratic Party’s branch in South Kazakhstan Region and a member of a loose patriotic group of individual activists called Alash Zholy which applied for a rally in Shymkent on May 21, told bne IntelliNews that following Nazarbayev’s moratorium on the controversial amendments there was no need to hold a rally.
“There should be a good reason for rallying. The issue seems to have lost its topicality given the moratorium,” Kozhakhanov explains to bne IntelliNews.
Azat, which has shifted from the being an openly opposition party to a mildly pro-presidential one, appealed to President Nazarbayev on May 18 to release detained activists and issue permission to hold rallies on May 21.
“There is no doubt that, in the situation of the growing social tension and public mistrust in this government, further violations of basic rights of Kazakh citizens could lead to the most serious and unpredictable consequences,” the party said in the appeal. “We demand the immediate release of those convicted for administrative offences and the end to persecution, arrests and other forms of harassment of citizens, because their public and political activity is determined by, above all, sincere concern for the fate of Kazakhstan.”
Shymkent-based observers explain the lack of a visible protest mood in South Kazakhstan by regional differences: the region is overwhelmingly rural (55% of the population) and is dependent on Astana for budget spending, unlike western oil regions and Almaty which contribute to the central budget more than they receive back.
The low oil price has severely affected the economy of oil-rich regions, unlike regions which don’t depend on oil but government funds, Ainur Nurtai, director of the Shymkent-based state-funded Youth Initiative Fund, explains to bne IntelliNews.
“South Kazakhstan Region is a recipient region depending on funds from the central budget and, since the funds it receives haven’t been cut, the majority of the region’s population hasn’t felt significant changes,” Nurtai says. “The government is also providing farmers and the rural population with subsidies and small loans so they are not yet feeling serious consequences from the crisis.”
Unlike rural regions in the country’s south and north, most foreign investment the country has received has gone into the oil and gas sector in Kazakhstan’s western regions. As a result, “the population in the south doesn’t see an influx of foreigners as in western regions. Hence, there is no tension between them in the south,” Nurtai notes.
Amengeldi Kalybek, an activist in the Shymkent-based Prisma youth organisation, explains that Kazakhstan’s “economic successes” in previous years have been maintained by high oil prices but the low oil price has shown the “illusoriness” of the country’s economic achievements and the weaknesses in economic security.
This has changed relations between regional elites and the centre, which is manifested in public protests, he argues. “At this moment, I would like to pay greater attention not to the public mood but to the behaviour of regional elites and their relations with the centre,” Kalybek tells bne IntelliNews.
“Until now Astana has generously thanked regions for their loyalty via government programmes, but with shortages of funds it will be interesting to watch the behaviour the regional elites in the near future and whether they have enough patience.”
Kalybek also explains protest mood in different regions by their relations with Astana in terms of net contributors or recipients of funds from the government. “South Kazakhstan is relatively calm, whereas the public mood in Western Kazakhstan, which contributes to the central budget, is rapidly turning into demands for action,” he says.
According to the budget in 2016, Astana is expected to withdraw a combined KZT214.8bn (nearly €600mn) from the local budgets in western oil-rich Atyrau and Mangistau Regions and Almaty and Astana, and to send a combined KZT837bn to other regions, including KZT256bn to South Kazakhstan Region.
Ordinary people in Shymkent interviewed by bne IntelliNews are overwhelmingly against the sales of farmland and the leases of it to foreigners but say that they will refrain from protesting in public.
Abilkasym Yesentayev, a 27-year-old civil servant, explains his opposition to the amendments by drawing parallels with the lease of the Baikonur space-launching facility to Russia. “We are leasing the Baikonur cosmodrome to Russia which has imposed its laws in Baikonur,” he tells bne IntelliNews, referring to the shared Kazakh-Russian jurisdiction at the facility. “Where are guarantees that this doesn’t happen to farmlands leased by China?”