Kazakhstan: Land Commission Trudges On Amid Arrests

A public commission set up in Kazakhstan as an attempt to defuse tensions over contentious planned land auctions convened for its third session over the weekend, but was overshadowed by an ongoing campaign by prosecutors against anti-reform demonstrators.

Out of the 75 people initially nominated to the commission, which is intended as a platform of discussion between government officials and critics of the land reform, 62 turned up on May 28.

Deputy prime minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev, who moderated the session, said the land commission would work for the next six months to compile public recommendations for submission to parliament. In the coming week, representatives from the commission will travel across the country to sound out public opinion.

The commission has been broken down into four working groups focusing on legal and economic aspects, as well as on how to draw up effective mechanisms for informing the public about, and enhancing transparency of, eventual land sales. The working groups met for the first time on May 25 to generate suggestions that will eventually be pooled at plenary sessions of the commission in Astana.

The primary area of discussion this past weekend was the thorny topic of renting land to foreigners. The semi-formal exchange of views lasted around four hours and drew contributions from around 30 or so of the commission’s members. Many others, however, could be seen uninterestedly perusing their smartphones at length.

One of the more practical suggestions was to create a publicly available land ownership database.

Others recommended closer scrutiny over the number of Chinese citizens living in the country — this reflects a widespread conviction in Kazakhstan that granting long-term land leases to foreigners, who it is believed would mainly consist of investors from China, could eventually result in a slow-motion land grab. The presumed malign intentions of foreign investors has given rise to multiple suspicions, such as one aired at the commission meeting about the claimed proliferation of fake Kazakhstani passports. 

There was a split of opinion about whether developing the agricultural sector needed foreign investment at all. For some, extending the number of years for which a foreign investor can lease land from 10 to 25 years — as envisioned by the changes to law adopted in November — would be a boon for innovation. Others took the opposite view and suggested scrapping all provisions allowing outsiders to rent farming land.

But some, like nationalist activist Mukhtar Taizhan, skirted the land issue altogether to demand more clarity over the fate of anti-land reform demonstrators detained during May 21 rallies across the country.

“In Almaty, on May 21, when women sang the national anthem, police detained them. How to explain this? Our grandmothers, elderly people too were detained. How to explain this? With one hand we give people the opportunity to express their opinion and with the other we shut their mouths,” Taizhan said.

On May 30, civil society campaigners in Almaty announced the creation of a committee intended to defend the rights of those detained over the protests.

The goal of the Arasha Committee Against Repression — which includes prominent civil rights campaigners like Yevgeniy Zhovtis, Amirzhan Kosanov, Ryspek Sarsenbay, Marzhan Aspandiyarova and Zhanbolat Mamay — is “to provide assistance our citizens who were arrested or are being persecuted by the law enforcement bodies for holding, participating or intending to participate in a peaceful protest,” said Amangeldy Shormanbayev of the International Legal Initiative rights watchdog.

Commenting at the land reform commission on the events of May 21, Deputy Prosecutor General Andrei Kravchenko insisted that investigations would be carried out transparently.

“Fifty-one people were called to administrative account — four have been sentenced (to 15 days in jail), 12 were fined and 21 were given warnings,” Kravchenko said, in addition to some 40 activists jailed for up to 15 days ahead of the protests.

Although Kravchenko sought to reassure, statements from his office in recent days have done anything but. On May 27, the General Prosecutor’s Office issued a note describing the rallies as an attempt to topple the government — a certain signal that some activists could well face draconian reprisals for attempting to assemble an antigovernment demonstration.

Arasha (a Kazakh word which loosely translates as “mediation”) said it has information that eight people may face serious criminal charges resulting in long prison sentences from the unrest: Gataugaly Bokan, Zhanat Yesentayev, Sagyngali Kapizov, Kubaydolla Sholak, Talgat Ayan, Yerlan Bashakov, Maks Bokayev and Makhambet Abzhan. All are grassroots activists vocal in their opposition to land reform, some from the cities of Atyrau and Oral in western and northern Kazakhstan, where the prosecutor’s office has claimed armed uprisings were planned.

Officials have not released figures on how many people were detained during the protests on May 21, but Shormanbayev said he believed the figure was over 1,000 and possibly up to 1,500, while Taizhan, citing his own sources, said that 1,083 people were detained.

Taizhan is distinctive for his presence on the land forum in being one of only a handful of genuinely independent civil society campaigners among all the government officials and Nur Otan representatives. The predominance of figures close to the state has created apprehensions among some observers that the commission will simply become a talking shop intended to quell protest moods but that will ultimately leave the substance of the planned land reforms intact.

Another figure offering some degree of dissenting input was Zhanuzak Akim, a nationalist activist that runs a self-styled research unit whose social media presence has of late focused heavily on the land issue. Akim complained that the previous major overhaul of land laws in 2003 had not yet been properly implemented. Under that legislation, every citizen of Kazakhstan building a house was eligible to receive a plot of free land.

That provision has suddenly again become subject of feverish speculation with reports of thousands of people in the cities of Astana and Shymkent besieging local government offices with demands to be allocated their portion of land. More than 100,000 in Astana have reportedly signed up for the giveaway, although there is only apparently land available for 15,000.

“For 13 years, we have not been able to give away land to our own people. What is the hold-up? Why don’t we solve this? Let us first solve real problems, and then go on to other things,” Akim said.

The renewed surge of interest in this free land appears to have been sparked by the reported circulation of warnings on phone messaging services that the stock of available land was set to run out imminently.

Toleugaz Nurkenov, the head of the land management department at Astana city hall, described the spike in applications for land as the result of a “provocation.”

“There are certain people who are trying to upset the situation in the country. They will seize any opportunity to manipulate the people. People will not be calmed down. This panic has been going on since May 16. We have been pulling people from all departments and have five open windows to accept applications from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Then we work until one in the morning to input all this information into the database,”  Nurkenov said in remarks cited by TengriNews.

The next session of the land commission is set for June 4. The body will have until the end of the year to generate recommendations for parliament, while the moratorium on the land law imposed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev will expire on December 31. 

Kazakhstan: Land Commission Trudges On Amid Arrests

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