Bishkek Residents Alarmed at Land Seizures

A wave of squatters staking claims to spare land in the Kyrgyz capital has led to growing anger among locals.

Bishkek Residents Alarmed at Land Seizures

A wave of squatters staking claims to spare land in the Kyrgyz capital has led to growing anger among locals.

An apparently spontaneous wave of land seizures in and around the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek has met with a furious reaction from local residents. The seizures began last week in the wake of the change of government, and are causing a growing confrontation.

The government is doing its best to calm down the situation, assuring people who are genuinely landless that they will be apportioned a plot somewhere outside the city.

The squatters first appeared on April 7, initially in a parkland area in the south of Bishkek, and began marking off areas with rope, wire and stones. In the week since then, between 3,000 and 5,000 settlers have become involved, living in tents and lighting fires at night on “their” plot.

Elsewhere in the city, the squatters appropriated 90 hectares of land that belongs to the Manas University, a new Kyrgyz-Turkish institution now under construction. The university’s rector, Karybek Moldobaev, said foreign students were leaving, as they are scared of riots and violence.

The campus is only partially complete, and the squatters took over the unused lands, setting up a virtual tent town. By April 12, they were laying foundations and constructing walls for new buildings.

The issue of landlessness is a longstanding one. Under the law, every Kyrgyzstan national was supposed to have been given their own piece of land after the Soviet-era collective farms were divided up in the early Nineties.

This latest wave is clearly a direct follow-on from the social upheaval surrounding the March 24 “tulip revolution”.

Many of the new squatters say it was their revolution and insist they have every right to take land after years of requests went unanswered. Some are from southern Kyrgyzstan where the protests were strongest.

It is unclear what prompted the latest wave, or the level of organisation behind it.

One of the squatters, Mairam Aidarkanova, said, “We heard land was been given out here, so we to came to take a plot of land. In the south where we come from there isn’t any unoccupied land, so where are we supposed to live and build houses?”

A man who gave his name only as Kalys told IWPR, “I won’t give up the land I’ve taken, not for anything - they can shoot me - because I’ll never get this chance again. No one gave us a thought for 15 years, so we’ll take care of ourselves.”

The response has been a groundswell of anger from residents both of the capital and of the surrounding Chui region where some farmland has also been occupied by squatters,

The mood was caught in a petition signed by Bishkek residents which was submitted to parliament, “The vast majority of us don’t live much better than those do not have housing in the city,” it said. “Everything we have, we earned by working. We did not take things from others, justifying our actions by our poverty.”

Between 2,000 and 5,000 people gathered in the capital’s central Alatoo square on April 10, to give vent to their anger at what they allege is official inaction.

Acting president and prime minister Kurmanbek Bakiev appeared at the rally to assure protestors that his administration was doing its best.

A new anti-squatter, residents’ rights group emerged from the demonstration, called the Committee for Stability and Order, and its head Ernest Adylov later gave a press conference at which he said, “Today, people are putting down marker pegs and dividing up plots of land. If they lay the foundations for a house tomorrow, then it will be impossible to stop them.

“This seizure of land will not just be a local war - the consequences may be quite terrifying, for both southerners and northerners, for residents of Bishkek and all other citizens of Kyrgyzstan.”

The potential for local confrontations is quite real. Farmers in Chui’s Sokuluk district were outraged when squatters came onto their land, trampling the crops they had planted. The farmers said this had destroyed the cereal harvest they expected later in the year.

The local member of parliament, Temir Sariev, told IWPR, “The first clashes took place in villages in my district, located close to the capital, on April 9. The local landowners had to enlist some horsemen to pacify the squatters who had invaded their land.

“Unless the government does something, the confrontation may turn into a bloody drama.”

In a bid to defuse the situation, leaders of non-government organisations which have an influential voice in Kyrgyzstan, appeared on television on April 11 to beg the squatters to stop acting illegally. As a solution, they proposed a moratorium on all further distribution of land until the presidential election scheduled for July 10.

Alisher Mamasaliev, who heads the youth group KelKel that played a key role in the anti-Akaev protests, explained why the issue needed to be deferred, “At the moment, there is no clear hierarchy of power in Kyrgyzstan. However the matter is resolved, it will only lead to more land being seized. It is impossible to resolve this issue to anyone’s advantage, because the situation could get out of control. That’s why a moratorium is needed.”

The squatters interviewed by IWPR came from a variety of backgrounds, even the capital itself. But all appeared unrepentant about their actions.

“I can’t afford to buy an apartment, it’s too expensive,” said Kubanych, who came to the capital from southern Kyrgyzstan for the protests which forced President Askar Akaev to flee the country. “Here in Bishkek, a one-room apartment costs 10,000-12,000 [US] dollars. But no one ever sees money like that; I only earn 1,000 to 1,500 soms [25-40 dollars] a month. It’s easy for me to build a house, and all I need is some land - so I took some. If I guard the area I have seized for a long time, I will get it anyway.”

Samar Abdraimov, another man originally from the south, has lived in rented accommodation in Bishkek since 1999, but still thinks he was right to take join the squatters’ movement. “Just look at how much land around the capital has been occupied by big shots who build their mansions here,” he said. “Yet many of their countrymen from remote regions are forced to wander around looking for a roof over their heads.

“I won’t take one step back from the land I’ve taken, they will have to kill me.”

By law, everyone in Kyrgyzstan became entitled to own a piece of land when the new Land Code was adopted in 1999. Many of the squatters say they never received one, but it also appears that some of them do already own land somewhere.

Non-government groups compiled an initial list of 21,000 people with outstanding claims to be allotted land in or near Bishkek, but it appears that most of the squatters are from other parts of the country. By April 12, the number of claimants had reached 50,000.

This confused picture makes it even harder for the new authorities to address everyone’s concerns in this mounting crisis. The main official line at the moment is that legitimate needs for land will be met, without abusing the rights of others.

“The government is familiar with the housing problem, and we will give land to everyone who needs it, on a legal basis and taking into account the capital’s architecture and urban planning,” Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov told IWPR. “At the same time, we won’t let the squatters build however and wherever they want.”

The head of Bishkek’s city council, Nurjamal Baibolova, said land issues had a long history, “This problem has been looming for a long time. Because of the lack of land and work in the south, people migrate to the capital in search of a better life.”

But Baibolova also senses “a political motive” behind the land seizures, a point she did not elaborate on.

She said police were demoralised by recent events and were choosing not to intervene in the land dispute, and attempts by city authorities to negotiate a solution had failed because of the sheer scale of the problem.

As a first step, the government has asked everyone who feels they have a legitimate claim to go to the State Registry and fill out forms to say they do not currently hold any land. The immediate result of this announcement was that several thousand people gathered outside the land registry office on April 11 to press their claim.

According to Baibolova, “Of the 10,000-12,000 people who are making claims to land, most of them do have land in Kyrgyzstan. The Land Code states that a citizen can only receive free land once. So some of the people do already have land.”

In any case she said, the city authorities could not allow people to grab land plots in urban areas, and those people who were found to be genuinely landless should be given areas in the countryside.

The squatters have organised themselves into committees, which in turn have established an association. The head of the latter, Gulyai Kydyrova, met the authorities to discuss the requirement that people present a formal claim, but it seem to have resulted in a meeting of minds.

“The akim [district administration head] talked to us and explained what documents we need to gather. But none of us work, so no one’s going to leave, and no one has any plans to give up the land they have taken,” she said.

Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is IWPR programme coordinator in Bishkek.

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC correspondent in Bishkek.

Sultan Kanazarov is a journalist for with Radio Azzatyk, the Kyrgyz service of RFE/RL. Cholpon Arkabaeva, an IWPR trainee journalist, also contributed to this article.

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