The always sensitive issue of land, be it farmland or plots for building houses, is continuing to agitate people across Kazakhstan.
Authorities are desperately trying to quieten the situation following large-scale land protests in April and May, which they have labelled as an attempted coup d’etat and blamed them on “third forces” abroad.
Demonstrators have been protesting against the auctions of farmland to entities with foreign involvement and the leases of it to foreigners. Discontent with the ongoing economic crisis, which has led to a rapid fall in living standards, has brought hundreds out on to the streets to challenge the authoritarian regime.
For the moment the government seems to have brought the protests under control, but it may still find itself in an awkward situation when it has to explain to why it is advocating the sale of farmland to entities with foreign involvement, while regional governments continue to ration the allocation of free land for building housing for its citizens.
On May 16 the country’s National Economy Ministry told Tengrinews that despite regional moratoriums imposed on the allocation of plots of land to individuals for building houses, authorities would allocate plots covering 1,000 square metres (also known as 10 hundredth (of a hectare) in some regions of the country this year.
A total of 7,391 plots will be allocated in western Aktobe Region, 11,511 in densely-populated southern Almaty Region, 1,748 in West Kazakhstan Region and unspecified numbers of plots in South Kazakhstan, southern Zhambyl and Kyzylorda Regions and East Kazakhstan Regions. Plots will not be allocated in the other seven regions and the cities of Astana and Almaty.
According to law, every Kazakh citizen is entitled to the free-of-charge allocation of 1,000 square metres of land for building a house once in their lifetime, but there are huge backlogs. According to the ministry, 1,129,192 citizens are now queuing to obtain such plots of land, including 112,546 in Almaty, 101,234 in Astana, 129,445 in Aktobe Region, 84,510 in Almaty Region, 100,832 in Akmola Region, which surrounds Astana, and 139,807 in the most-populated South Kazakhstan Region.
The ministry also noted that since the adoption of this provision in the country’s legislation, authorities have received 1,547,141 applications and have allocated 417,949 plots of land since 2005, including 81,190 in South Kazakhstan Region, 40,147 in Akmola Region, 59,169 in Almaty Region, 43,276 in Mangistau Region, 1,447 in Astana and 26,444 in Almaty.
The reason for the backlog is that authorities allocate land for housing construction only if the development site already has “communications”, ie roads, water and electricity supplies. Authorities do this in order to prevent discontent with living conditions in such areas, but this requires significant funds, and therefore they impose moratoriums on the allocation of plots of land.
The ministry’s announcement of the allocation of land plots has created a rush in major urban centres, particularly in Shymkent, the administrative centre of South Kazakhstan Region and the country’s second largest city, and Astana.
In Shymkent, 5,000 people rushed to submit applications to local authorities in the hope of obtaining plots in three days, while 3,200 application were received in Astana in 10 days. With the asking price of 1,000-square-metre of plots starting from $150,000 in Almaty and Astana and over $20,000 in Shymkent and other regional centres, the free-of-charge plots of land are a bargain (if one can get them).
Land issues still resonate with Kazakhs, even though they mostly reside in cities and towns nowadays. Historically, land was the main resource for nomadic Kazakhs to graze their livestock; the more a tribe had the better off they were, because in the harsh climatic conditions Kazakh animal husbandry mostly relied on free-range grazing. Despite lacking a documented ownership of land, each tribe grazed their animals only on their “own” lands without encroaching into the next door tribe’s lands – an issue that was fraught with land disputes and conflicts.
In recent decades, large-scale migration from villages to towns have led to what authorities regard as illegal construction of housing on the outskirts of major urban cities. In 2006 Almaty was the scene of a violent stand-off between residents of makeshift settlements and police. Authorities tried to demolish the illegally built houses to open the way for property developers seeking to cash in during the property boom in the run-up to the global financial crisis in 2008-2009.
As with the protests against sales of farmland, authorities have responded to the allocation crisis with accusations that “certain people” are trying to destabilise the situation in the country. “This is a typical provocation,” Toleugazy Nurkenov, head of Astana’s land management department, told journalists. “There are certain people who need to destabilise the situation in the country and they are latching on to any reason to manipulate people.”
Authorities in Shymkent blamed the rush on “rumours that a window to apply for plots of lands is limited”, according to Tengrinews. “There is no need to believe in false information that the state has started to allocate plots of land for building housing. That’s why city residents should not create such a rush,” said the the city administration, according to the Astana TV channel.
In 2014 the government adopted legislation to criminalise the “spreading of deliberate false information” and punish it with a prison term of up to 10 years.
Authorities seem to find it easier to fight the manifestations of social problems not at the roots, but by punishing those spreading “rumours” or organising rallies. Civil society activists believe this policy will fail and that unresolved social problems and injustice will keep sparking outbreaks of social discontent in the country.
People in Shymkent have stormed the local administration in a rush to submit their applications for free-of-charge plots of land - Photo: otyrar.kz