In the newer suburbs that ring the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, a piece of paper can decide if life will be nasty and possibly short, or relatively comfortable and upwardly mobile.
Sabyr Omuraliev, the informal leader of Kalys-Ordo, one such new settlement, or “novostroika,” is well regarded by his neighbors. Referred to as “a bridge” and a “big man,” they credit him with arranging for the community’s 900 squatters to obtain property titles and residency permits a year after they occupied the land in 2002. In its short existence as part of the Bishkek municipality, Kalys-Ordo has acquired lots of comforts.
“Every new settlement has its own story,” Omuraliev says cheerfully over a bowl of beetroot soup in his summer kitchen.
A short walk to the east, the roughly thousand residents of Altyn-Kazyk have a far different tale to tell. They have lived in isolation and poverty since seizing a plot of land close to the municipal dump in 2005. Diseases there proliferate, the adobe dwellings lack running water, and residents must tramp across more than a kilometer of marshland to access public transport. The settlement is unlikely to achieve legal status any time soon, experts add.
Under Kyrgyz law, the state must provide every citizen with a free parcel of land as long as he can prove he does not own a plot elsewhere. But in reality, a land-allocation process thick with corruption and bureaucratic obstacles awaits anyone attempting to claim his share. Often lacking legal documents of any sort, impatient internal migrants from Kyrgyzstan’s remote, rural districts have illegally grabbed land around Bishkek, making novostroiki a permanent feature of the country’s social, political and economic life. With the government lacking the will to evict, resettle, or recognize the squatters, communities without an effective “bridge” like Omuraliev often turn to street protests as a way to get the government’s attention.
Kalys-Ordo’s story has one of the happier endings. The homes are connected with freshly paved roads, while all the dwellings have electricity and access to running water. In a city short of kindergartens, they expect the mayor’s office to fulfill its promise to build two there in the near future. Now that the settlement is incorporated, wealthier people are moving in and building homes.
Residents in Kalys-Ordo acknowledge that Omuraliev’s ability to negotiate with officials was key to their ability to obtain recognition, and with that, services from the city. Working on their behalf, he struck a deal with the electricity utility to get Kalys-Ordo connected to the grid. And he ensured that residents were able to gather all documents necessary to achieve Bishkek residency permits.
“In the end we helped the government,” Omuraliev explained. “When we came here, it was just a wheat field and some fallow land. People [waiting for plots in the official land-allocation line] didn’t want to live here. Now over half of the residents of Kalys-Ordo are people from the line.”
The state tends to be more willing to invest in and provide legal status to communities that have done some of the legwork themselves, says Maamatkul Aideraliev, director of Arysh, a non-governmental organization that offers legal services to residents of Bishkek’s sprawling novostroiki.
But this is just one of the many chicken-and-egg dilemmas that plague municipal housing, Aideraliev adds. Land grabs and land speculators increase the official waiting time for a plot “making it more likely citizens will seek land by illegal means,” he says. “Everybody wants to deny they are a part of the problem. But they are all involved – from politicians at the national level, to officials in the mayor’s office down to the settlement leaders themselves.”
The phenomenon of squatting perhaps reached its peak during the aftermath of the Tulip Revolution in 2005, when several settlements sprung up as a new government struggled to find its feet. The largest, Ak-Jar, boasts 8,000 permanent inhabitants, and it is still waiting for legal status.
Desperate to gain access to healthcare and schools – services that require a Bishkek residency permit, which the city will only grant those living in official domiciles – novostroiki residents often resort to extreme tactics, such as blocking roads and burning tires, to win the government’s attention. A recent report by the Open Society Foundations [OSF] argues these methods are “strategic and instrumental” and that settlers use “political opportunities, such as election cycles to obtain concessions.” [Editor’s Note: EurasiaNet.org operates under OSF’s auspices.]
Ak-Jar residents employed such tactics during Kyrgyzstan’s November 2011 presidential election, forcing then-Prime Minister Almazbek Atambayev to promise their plot would be granted legal status. Yet since Atambayev’s presidential win, Ak-Jar’s status has not changed.
Rakhadbek Suiumkulov, head of OGUKS, the city office that assesses and finances infrastructure needs in new settlements, says Ak-Jar’s case is complicated by the fact that the terrain is unsuitable for construction and that gas mains pass under many of the dwellings. Ak-Jar residents told EurasiaNet.org that the city had forced them to sign a waiver, in the event of any accident, in exchange for government investment into the settlement and eventual legalization.
Suiumkulov would not discuss those allegations, but said the government is “undertaking certain measures towards the settlement, from a humanitarian point of view.” However, he said Altyn-Kazyk, the settlement located on the fringes of the garbage dump, which officials promised to recognize after the 2005 uprising, would never be incorporated.
“Altyn-Kazyk is different because it is located in an ecologically unsafe zone,” he told EurasiaNet.org. “It isn’t desirable that anyone should live there.”
Chris Rickleton is a Bishkek-based journalist. Bermet Zhumakadyr kyzy provided reporting for this article.