Clare Nuttall in Astana -
A campaign against plans by the Kazakh government to overhaul the pension system is gathering pace, in a rare instance of mass public discontent in this autocratic Central Asian state.
The campaign began after Labour and Social Protection Minister Serik Abdenov became a figure of fun in Kazakhstan after unsuccessfully trying to defend plans to increase the retirement age for women from 58 to 63 at a public meeting in the industrial town of Temirtau in April. Asked why the retirement age was being raised, the very boyish-looking 36-year-old Abdenov replied: "You have to work and work... because, esteemed fellow countrymen, because, because..." A video from the meeting has since gone viral on YouTube and opponents of the pension plans have launched an online campaign, with women posting photos of themselves carrying signs that say, "I must work and work until 63 years... Pa-ta-mu-chto, Pa-ta-mu-chto", a misspelling of "because, because" in Russian which sounds mocking.
Abdenov said later that his words had been taken out of context, and that he had been trying to lighten the mood. He has continued a series of meetings around the country to explain the reforms. But his position has been further undermined as campaigners point out that in September 2012 he said there was no need to raise the retirement age.
Women in several Kazakhstani cities have been collecting signatures on a petition calling for a public hearing on the reforms that will see the retirement age gradually raised by six months a year between 2014 and 2024. "Life expectancy is not so high in Kazakhstan, our standard of living is not so good. Many women already die before they reach retirement age," Aliya, one of a small group of women gathering signatures in Astana on April 28, told bne.
"A woman is not a horse," added one of her fellow activists. The group, which was standing just a few hundred metres from Kazakhstan's parliament in the heart of Astana's government district, were being watched closely by a group of police officers.
Aliya said that they had gathered around 60 signatures in Astana, but that several thousand had been gathered in other parts of the country, with strong support for the movement in industrial cities such as Ust-Kamenogorsk. As of May 8, the "Patamuchto, patamuchto" Facebook page had 5,249 likes, with members using it as a forum to compare Kazakh pensions with those in other countries, and criticise spending on the Expo-2017 world fair due to take place in Astana, as well as posting cartoons mocking Adbenov.
In a more direct attack, Abdenov was pelted with eggs at a press conference in Almaty on April 26. Abdenov was heckled by a man who introduced himself as Andrey Tsukanov, a communist from the industrial city of Karaganda. Tsukanov was arrested and sentenced to seven days in prison.
The Kazakh government says that the retirement age for women needs to be brought into line with that for men, as the country will not be able to continue supporting pensioners from an early age. Similar moves to raise the retirement age have been initiated in several European countries, where governments are concerned about a demographic time bomb due to ageing populations and low birth rates.
In Kazakhstan, as of 2012 average life expectancy at birth was 66.5 years - 72.6 years for women and 60.7 for men - according to the World Bank. This is well below most Western European countries. As of 2012, the country had a birth rate of 25 births per 1,000 people, up 3.1% from 2011, which is significantly higher then the 12.27 births per 1,000 people in the UK and just 8.33 births per 1,000 people in Germany. However, Kazakhstan's state statistics agency forecasts that the birth rate will start to decline from 2015.
The pensions reforms have also caused concern among Kazakhstan's investor community due to plans to merge the country's 11 pensions funds - ten of which are private - into a single fund under the control of the central bank by July this year. Tight restrictions on the assets that pension funds can invest into have already forced many Almaty-based brokers to shut down or lay people off.
Rare show of dissent
Unlike neighbouring Kyrgyzstan which has been shaken by two revolutions in the last decade, Kazakhstan has little history of mass political activism, making the backlash against the pensions reforms and the growing campaign online and in the streets a rare occurrence.
Both government and population were shocked by the Zhanaozen tragedy in December 2011, when at least 14 people were killed in clashes between rioters and police on the country's 20th anniversary of independence. The riots followed a seven-month strike by oil workers, the longest and most acrimonious in post-Soviet Kazakhstan's history.
Forced to reassess its social policy in the aftermath of Zhanaozen, the government took a carrot-and-stick approach. On the one hand, the violent crushing of the riot was followed up with a clampdown on opposition parties and media. At the same time, funding was announced for projects to raise living standards and create more economic opportunities in the regions, especially in remote mono-industry towns like Zhanaozen.
Almaty-based think-tank the Institute of Political Solutions (IPS) forecasts that Kazakhstan will see an increasing number of grassroots protests based on specific issues, with the campaign against pensions reform a prime example of this. The IPS writes that efforts by the authorities to promote unpopular social initiatives "leave much to be desired."
The IPS's head of internal policy, Maxim Kaznacheev, also warns that if Kazakhstan's economic growth slows in 2013, the government could be forced to revise its budget mid-year. "This year's budget has an increase in social spending, but some of Kazakhstan's main trading partners have reduced imports and world commodities prices have fallen," Kaznacheev tells bne. "The government is likely to decide in mid year when the results of the first half are calculated. If this affects social spending or public sector salaries it could cause unrest."
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