A year after authorities precipitously demolished their dwellings, members of Kazakhstan's Hare Krishna community still find themselves in legal limbo. The Krishnas insist they are victims of religious persecution, while authorities characterize the case as a property-rights matter.
The dispute concerning a 116-acre plot of land in the village of Bereke, outside of Almaty dates back to 2003, when Kazakhstan updated provisions regulating the privatization of farmland. Members of the community bought the land in 1999 and built a temple on the property. The bulk of the plot, known as the Sri Vrindavan Dham commune, operates as a working farm. Over the last four years, the community has been involved in a string of legal actions relating both to the ownership of the plot and to the status of dwellings built there.
Some Krishna community members have managed to privatize their homes, but many have been unable to do so. In attempts to resolve ownership questions, Krishna community representatives have accused local authorities of acting arbitrarily. In November 2006, 13 homes belonging to community members were bulldozed on the grounds that they were illegal constructions. An additional 12 homes were demolished in June, with officials providing the same official rationale. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Igor Yegorov's two-story house was among those destroyed. He has been seeking clarification since then as to why the house was demolished, and why he did not qualify for a government amnesty to legalize property deals. He states that he has written over 100 letters to government officials at all levels, and has yet to receive a satisfactory response. Officials merely restate that the house which Yegorov bought in 2004 was illegally constructed.
The land itself also continues to be a subject of intensive legal maneuvering. Various court rulings have invalidated the right of the Krishna community to own the land. In April, a Kazakhstani court ruled that the state could assume the title to the land. In October, however, the original owner, Ermek Abdykalykov, successfully sued to regain the property. Another court ruling on November 4 then handed the land back to the state. Officials now say they intend to establish an orphanage on the property.
All the while, members of the Krishna community have continued to occupy the land, despite knowing they could be subject to eviction on short notice. Many, however, continue to harbor hope for a last-minute reversal of fortune. Underpinning that belief is Prime Minister Karim Masimov's recent recommendation that the local mayor, Bolat-bi Kutpanov, be dismissed following a probe into illegal construction and land allocation around Almaty. This scandal, Krishna community representatives say, provides grounds for a re-hearing of the case involving the Sri Vrindavan Dham commune.
Casting the case as an instance of religious persecution, community spokesman Maksim Varfolomeyev argues that if the government adheres to its current position it would do considerable damage to the country's human rights image abroad. Ninel Fokina, the chairwoman of the Almaty Helsinki Committee agreed, calling the case "a dirty stain damaging the image of our country." Krishna community members recently returned from an advocacy tour to the United States, Britain and the European Union capital of Brussels, striving to raise awareness about the case.
Demonstrating a well-developed sense of public relations, Varfolomeyev suggested a government decision to revisit the commune case would offer a goodwill gesture that could enhance Kazakhstan's troubled bid to chair the OSCE in 2009. A decision on Kazakhstan's application is expected in the coming weeks. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "On the radar screen en route to the OSCE, [the dispute] is a very important criteria."
Underscoring the high-profile nature of the controversy, a senior US diplomat, Ambassador Richard Williamson, raised it at the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting in Warsaw on 26 September. "In Kazakhstan, several government policies are clearly out of step with OSCE commitments," said Williamson in his speech, "For instance, in their continued efforts to expropriate land belonging to the Hare Krishna commune outside Almaty, local officials have bulldozed 25 houses, leaving families homeless while maligning their religion."
Authorities insist their actions are being misrepresented, adding that they have made attempts to settle the dispute out of court. In one such attempt, authorities proposed allocating an alternate site for the Krishna commune in the Almaty Region. The Krishna community rejected the offer saying the new land was unsuitable.
Krishna community representatives contend that officials do not comprehend the faith-based social system that the commune represents, and, therefore, the government does not want it to succeed. "This project the farm is unique not only for Kazakhstan but for the whole Commonwealth of Independent States," said Olga Varfolomeyeva, Maksim's wife. "This was the first in the former Soviet Union and it's practically destroyed. Post-Soviet regimes can't accept this
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.