Protests are picking up steam in Kazakhstan against reforms that many fear could enable foreigners to buy up massive swaths of land and open the way to shady and corrupt transactions.
More than 1,000 people rallied in the western city of Atyrau on April 24, only the latest in a string such demonstrations. Civil activist Galymbek Akulbekov was able to hold a one-man picket in the capital, Astana, for about five minutes last week before being hauled away by police. Another larger rally in Almaty on April 22 drew some 30 people.
Although modest in size, the protests are an unusual sight and the authorities will be wary about cracking down too severely over a potentially incendiary and sensitive issue.
As the ninth largest country in the world, Kazakhstan is well-stocked on the land front. The country has 2.7 million square kilometers of farming land stock, of which around one-third is unused, according to the National Economy Ministry. Another 602,000 square kilometers is made up residential space, industrial areas and protected nature reserves.
Under government plans, the unused farming land could be sold or made available for rent, with the revenue going to the National Fund — Kazakhstan’s stabilization fund — instead of the state coffers.
Authorities have tried to reassure the public, specifying that the land being made available for acquisition can only be sold to citizens of Kazakhstan, while foreigners will only be able to rent for up to 25 years. The president’s office has argued this move will put the farming land back into circulation and provide economic return on land that is now lying unused.
Many smell a rat, however.
One fear is that the rental process will be marred by corruption and that any money raised will simply be stolen. Indeed, some have remarked on social media that while they are not opposed to the land sale proposal in principle, it is the good faith of the national leadership that they doubt.
“The question is about how this is going to be done by our bureaucrats. To whom and how will the best lands be sold off? And what will the money raised be spent on? That’s the whole problem,” outspoken government critic Sergei Duvanov wrote on his Facebook account.
For others though, the issue has a far more emotive quality.
Economic affairs commentator Denis Krivosheyev said in an interview to Nur.kz that selling land is seen by many as exchanging the motherland for cash.
“For Kazakhs, independence and territory have a sacred value,” he said.
Those that have come out to the streets in protest are diffident over the foreign ownership issue and suspect land will slowly be given away by stealth, despite the vehement reassurances of officials. Foreigners renting the land will be able to develop the property by building residential real estate or other kinds of commercial projects. Also, international buyers can take part in auctions to acquire the land as long as they are in a joint venture with a majority Kazakhstani partner.
The government initially plans to sell 17,000 square kilometers out of the unused farming land stock, starting from July 1.
Deputy National Economy Minister Kairbek Uskenbayev has said he thinks only auctions can guarantee transparency. Officials say that If a reasonable price is not offered, the land will be withdrawn from offer.
Still, the prices are so phenomenally low, there are very likely to be interested parties. Uskenbayev has said that 10,000 square meters plots of pasture land in the Akmola region, which surrounds the capital, can go for as little as 1,800 tenge ($5.40). Arable land will be offered from prices starting at 11,900 tenge ($36) per 10,000 square meters.
National Economy Minister Yerbolat Dosayev has said some restrictions on how the land can be used have also been loosened. Previously, anybody with deeds to the land had to formally make a request to change the type of activity they performed on the land — say, from feeding livestock to planting potatoes — but that will no longer be necessary.
Then again, if anybody buying land from the government strikes oil, they should wait before planning how to spend their millions. While the surface of the land may belong to the buyer, everything underneath is property of the government, which can swiftly snatch away the land through the local variant of eminent domain.