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Down and Out in Almaty

Kazaks are losing their property to increasingly wily racketeers
By Eduard Poletaev

Open any Almaty daily these days and the chances are you'll find an ad offering to exchange or buy your apartment if you're having problems making ends meet. Anyone who replies is quite likely to find themselves victims of a nasty sting operation. They might even find themselves on the streets.


Take the case of Maria Pankova who found herself at the thin edge of the wedge after the collapse of her third marriage. Her husband simply disappeared after squandering all the family savings on drink. The only thing she had left in her name was her comfortable three-room apartment in a well-to-do area of Almaty where she lived with her daughter.


Unable to find any work they found themselves unable to pay the bills. Then, a man who called himself Prince, appeared from out of the blue and offered to exchange her apartment for a smart farmhouse just outside the city. He even promised to clear their outstanding debts and throw in $2000 on top.


"We were shown a good house and we agreed to the deal," said Maria's daughter, Ekaterina. The problem was the title deeds they received were for an entirely different property, a dilapidated property several times below the market value of their apartment.


Needless to say, Ekaterina and her mother never saw the money promised by Prince. They took the case to court but it was thrown out.


The transition from the Soviet command economy to the free market has provided ample opportunity for racketeers to prey on those facing hard times. While the nature of the economy may have changed, no hard-and-fast rules of ownership came into play. Without these, unsuspecting property owners have found themselves duped over and again by a new breed of home sharks.


And in the years which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, property had been the one measure of stability in an otherwise turbulent period of economic and social unrest. Amid all the uncertainty, prosperity flowered in quarters of Almaty and people enjoyed a relatively high standard of living. Compare the price of a three-room apartment in the smart Samal district which might go for 80,000 US dollars with a similar dwelling 50 kilometres away which fails to attract buyers at prices as low as 1000 dollars.


These highly attractive Almaty apartments have drawn the attention of criminals eager to cash in this highly lucrative pocket in the property market. Their targets are the underprivileged who are struggling to survive there: the unemployed, pensioners, disabled, drug addicts, alcoholics and the mentally ill - anyone who might be in financial purdah.


"Only the strong and smart survive in the city," one of these housing sharks, Tofik I. told me." I don't see why some alcoholic or drug-addict should occupy a good apartment here."


Tofik I. stalks his victims at liquor stores, or bottle refund counters. He'll follow them back to where they live. "Alternatively we look for apartments with dirty windows, cheap curtains or unpainted front doors," he said. His lackeys stalk the streets looking for likely targets. He pays them up to 500 dollars if he succeeds in ousting the owners.


For a small bribe, information about defaulters and other unfortunates can also be bought from housing cooperatives who have the details of all the tenants and their circumstances on their books.


And they don't stop with the lower bureaucratic tiers. Tursynai D. now owns four luxury apartments which she acquired thanks to information passed on to her by her brother who works at the interior ministry. She is lucky that they keep comprehensive lists of drug users and dealers and that for the price of their next fix she got her hands on their valuable real estate.


Estate agents said that deals like this were commonplace although no exact figures are to hand. They say that these cunning fraudsters are relegating those ignorant of the law to the bleak outer fringes of society.


And in this game you can't even trust your friends. Nikolai, an electrician with 30 years professional experience, described how he suddenly found himself homeless. "One day some acquaintances of mine showed up saying they now lived carefree lives after they had exchanged their city apartment for a house in the suburbs," he said.


"I fell for this and bought a house which turned out to be owned by someone else who was away at the time. Then I found my acquaintances had been bribed by the man who now owns my apartment. But I couldn't prove anything."


Azamat A. who fuels his scams with bribes to the cooperatives and psychological sleights like the above, has another trick up his sleeve. He unscrews the house number from some run down property and fixes it to an attractive two-storey block which he then offers up to owners looking to swap apartments. Of course, they end up with the keys to the hovel.


And there's problem with paperwork to give these shady transactions a legal gloss. Azamat A. and Tofik I. liberally deal out backhanders to any attorneys and notaries who, in turn, are happy to provide them any false documentation needed.


The Kazakstan housing code passed in 1997 offers no protection against the likes of Azamat A. and Tofik I. Besides, the way they operate there's little material evidence pointing to any wrongdoing. And even if victims could furnish this they would probably not have the financial means to bring their cases to court.


"In my practice I know of very few instances in which the victim of a property swindle managed to prove his case," said lawyer Janbolat Ruzudinov. "The trouble with these transactions is that they all appear to be above board."


Eduard Poletaev is a regular IWPR contributor


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