Kazakh govt heads roll over farmland reform plans amid continuing protests

IntelliNews | 6 May 2016

Kazakh govt heads roll over farmland reform plans amid continuing protests
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.”

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