Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kazak Premier Wins Land Law Dispute

Anger as Kazak prime minister imposes controversial land code in the face of hostility from parliament.
By Aitrakhmet Aibasov

Deputies in Kazakstan’s parliament are furious that the government has pushed through a controversial law allowing private ownership of farmland – overriding all their objections.


It is rare for the Kazak parliament, which is packed with supporters of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, to rebel when the cabinet submits a piece of legislation for approval. But on May 14, the government was forced to withdraw its draft of a land code after it faced fierce criticism from deputies in the lower house, the Majlis. Many of them fear that it will open the way for wealthy businessmen to buy up large tracts of land.


As the debate in parliament progressed in late April, Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov became increasingly concerned that deputies intended to torpedo the bill before letting it through. They added several hundred amendments to the land code in a bid to soften its impact, and approved a much modified document on April 30.


At this Tasmagambetov’s patience snapped – he pulled it from parliamentary scrutiny on May 14, and called parliament’s bluff by demanding a vote of confidence in his government. He duly won the vote on May 19, by just under half the votes cast in parliament’s two chambers. He could only have lost if two thirds of deputies had voted against him.


Under the Kazak constitution, that allows him to regard the original version of the land code as having been adopted.


Parliamentarians opposed to the bill reacted angrily when it was forced through, not least because more than two thirds of the Majlis, whose job it is to pass legislation, had in fact voted against the government. It was the upper house or senate which swung the vote in the government’s favour, even though it has fewer members and their role is more of a supervisory one.


Opposition deputy Tolen Tokhtasynov told the Vremya newspaper that the government should have resigned since an absolute majority of votes had gone against it. Gani Kasymov, a deputy with centrist views, questioned the legality of a law that is adopted when one chamber is completely against it.


The move was a slap in the face to deputies who thought they could question and modify government policy.


“This has done a lot of damage to statehood and democracy,” said well-known deputy Valentin Makalkin in an interview with Vremya.


Another parliamentarian, Serik Abdrakhmanov, thinks the government wanted to show deputies who has upper hand when it comes to the law-making.


The reason the Majlis became so exercised over the land code was that it will allow agricultural land to be sold into private hands for the first time. Legislation approved in 2000 made private land ownership possible – but only of urban land plots attached to housing or business premises. Farmland can currently only be held on a long lease of 49 years, or 10 years in the case of foreigners.


Majlis deputies who led the opposition to the bill said it would benefit an influential few, such as regional governors or big business groups.


As deputy Gani Kasymov told IWPR, “This law is not for the people. In two years the land will be in the hands of two dozen individuals.”


He also expressed concern about the issue of transparency once money starts flowing in from land sales, “We don’t have the economic basis to implement this bill, and the concentration of money in the republic’s national fund from selling land is another political game.”


One of the amendments inserted into the draft by parliament – and subsequently thrown out by the prime minister – was that all farmers should be given land plots free of charge. Other changes included reducing by half the size of plot that one individual can own, and imposing tougher restrictions on land ownership by foreigners.


Parliamentary speaker Jarmakhan Tuyakbai – who voted against the government – said these amendments arose out of concern that the land code would ruin farmers.


Speaking for the government, agricultural minister Akhmetjan Esimov argued against the idea of handing out land to people who happen to live in rural areas. “They will get land for free, but others will be forced to buy it,” he said.


In this largely agricultural country, rural communities have strong ties to the soil. Farmers themselves appear keen to own the land they work, but remain sceptical about the government’s privatisation bill.


Altai Kadyrov, a poor farmer, would like to see privatisation, but is afraid that he could lose out. “I currently rent a piece of land from the state and live off it. If rich people buy it, I will be deprived of my last chance to earn a living,” he said.


Darkhan Asylbek, another farmer, is dismissive of the motives of government and parliament alike. “Whatever happens at the top, it won’t make it any easier for the people. The land they are fighting over is soaked in our sweat. We plough it and grow bread on it,” he said.


“The cabinet is introducing private ownership so that people close to the government can get rich, and the deputies are protesting because they are afraid they will lose out.”


Asylbek is suspicious about what will happen since he knows only too well that the government does not clamp down on the bureaucrats who extort bribes from him and other farmers. But he wants to see private ownership coming in, as long as the government ensures that people who do not work the land are prevented from moving in.


“My father saved up money all his life to buy the land where my ancestors are buried and where my kin used to roam,” he said.


Aitrakhmet Aibasov is the pseudonym for a journalist in Almaty


More IWPR's Global Voices

Ethnic Kazaks Fleeing China Feel Unsafe
Political and economic dependence means that Nur-Sultan has been reluctant to condemn ongoing persecution.
Uzbekistan: LGBT Rights Neglected
What Lies Behind Arrest of Tajik Journalist?