Kazakh govt heads roll over farmland reform plans amid continuing protests

Kazakh govt heads roll over farmland reform plans amid continuing protests
Kazakhs worry the country's farmland will come under foreign, mostly Chinese, control. / Photo by CC
By bne IntelliNews May 6, 2016

Kazakh National Economy Minister Yerbolat Dossayev resigned on May 5 after almost two weeks of protests against amendments to the Land Code that critics say would enable foreigners to buy more land. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has imposed a moratorium until next year on the amendments, which were supposed to come into force on July 1.

President Nazarbayev also sacked Dossayev’s deputy, Kairbek Uskenbayev, for failing to fully explain to the population the new amendments, which were adopted in November. Under the amendments to the Land Code, Kazakh citizens and Kazakh-majority corporate entities would be allowed to buy farmland at auctions and leases of farmland by foreigners would be extended from 10 to 25 years. 

The government’s thinking behind the auctions was to increase the transparency of land sales, which were previously administered by local authorities. But critics fear that the corrupt government system in Kazakhstan would merely enable more foreigners and foreign companies, mostly Chinese, to end up as the beneficiary owners of large swathes of farmland. Kazakhstan ranks as one of the bottom 50 most corrupt countries in Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index.

The protests started in the oil capital of Atyrau on April 24 and spread to the neighbouring 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 government also argues that wider private ownership of farmland and extended lease periods would allow landowners to make long-term investments in the agricultural sector. According to government estimates, about 7.5mn hectares of the country’s 26.6m hectares of total farmland is sitting idle.

President Nazarbayev’s initial reaction to the land protests was harsh criticism, although local officials, appointed by and accountable to the president, initially tried to maintain a dialogue with the protesters. “Attention has increased to the land issue because of persistent discharge of misinformation about the anticipated alleged sale of land to foreigners. It has repeatedly been explained, even by me, that this doesn’t correspond to reality,” Nazarbayev said on April 26. “All speculation on this topic has no grounds. Provocateurs should be exposed and be punished in accordance with the country’s law.”

Having repeatedly warned about the possibility of a Ukrainian-style overthrow of the government, Nazarbayev in his usual “good tsar, bad boyars” management style blamed the land crisis on individual members of government – specifically Uskenbayev, Dossayev and Agricultural Minister Asylzhan Mamytbekov. At a government meeting on May 5, Nazarbayev toned down his initial criticism and imposed a moratorium on the legislative amendments until 2017, ordering the government to launch a campaign to explain them properly to the population.

“It should have been explained to the population that didn’t understand that there was no talk of any sale of our agricultural lands. That’s why there was total speculation. This means we failed to explain this point to target population groups concerned,” Nazarbayev said. “If our people, Kazakh citizens, don’t understand and don’t trust decisions adopted it means it is wrong. We are doing everything for the people, but the public started doubting a number of legislative norms on this issue.”

At the meeting, the president set up a governmental commission on land issues and appointed First Deputy Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev to head it up.

Dissatisfied with their lot

The protests, while aimed specifically against the perceived sale of farmland to foreigners, also point to high levels of dissatisfaction amongst the public, who are experiencing economic hardships due to the low oil and other commodity prices. The adoption of a free-floating exchange rate in August 2015 that led to the nearly 50% depreciation of the tenge, coupled with an economic slowdown in the country, has worsened the living standards of the population. “The social situation is quite tense and the mounting crisis could spark an outbreak anywhere in Kazakhstan now,” Zhanna Bota, an Almaty-based civil activist and blogger, explains to bne IntelliNews. “There is too much injustice in Kazakhstan and people’s lives are too hard.”

Despite warnings about a possible heavy-handed response to the protests, activists have vowed to continue the protests, with significant ones planned in Almaty for May 7 and the country’s second largest city, Shymkent, on May 21. A handful of activists held a protest outside the Shykment city administration on May 5, calling for a referendum on the land reforms.

Sensing the growing social discontent about various issues, the government appears to be backtracking on its designs for farmland. Some see the latest protests as offering a good opportunity for the Kazakh authorities, which have become increasingly authoritarian since the crushing of any kind of opposition in the country following the riots in Zhanaozen. Nargis Kassenova, director of the Centre for Central Asian Studies at the Almaty-based KIMEP university, believes the issue could present an opportunity for the government to hold a dialogue with the people, which would help get out of the impasse that currently exists between the authorities and civil society 

“The land issue is the most favourable issue for the government to launch such an initiative. These protesters are largely not putting forward any political demands and they are not protesting against the system or its corrupt practices, at least not directly,” she wrote in a commentary in the local media, but at the same time warning the country now has “very few authoritative politicians or just authoritative people who could realistically and qualitatively assess land-lease projects and thus influence public opinion”.