Kazakstan: Bordering on Theft

An official alleges senior officials were involved in an embezzlement scheme, but no important figure has yet been charged.

Kazakstan: Bordering on Theft

An official alleges senior officials were involved in an embezzlement scheme, but no important figure has yet been charged.

Despite an unprecedented attempt to expose high-level involvement in corruption in Kazakstan, a scandal involving a housing compensation scheme has so far only resulted in the arrest of a few local officials.

The case involves the alleged misappropriation of money intended to assist people who lost their homes when the Kazak border with Uzbekistan was marked out. Officials involved in the scheme say there was no theft, just a few mistakes which were rectified.

Corruption is common talked about in Kazakstan, but it is more rare for high-level involvement to be discussed in an official setting.

So it came as a shock when the head of the Agency for Combating Economic Crimes and Corruption, Sarybay Kalmurzaev, held a press conference at the end of January enumerating a list of crimes allegedly committed by those involved in the border-zone corruption scheme.

Kalmurzaev noted that substantial funds had been allocated to the scheme. “But during the process, the number of people who were supposed to receive compensation increased drastically. It turned out that our fine officials had included people who live 270 or 300 metres away from the border line,” he said. “Thus, in Saryagash alone, over 170 million tenge [around 1.3 million dollars] were spent for purposes they were not intended in two rural districts.”

Some of the people who were illegally awarded the compensation were not even Kazakstan nationals, but citizens of Uzbekistan, he added.

In such cases, it is often lower-level officials who are hit by the full force of the law while their superiors remain untouched. Kalmurzaev went out of his way to point the finger at more senior officials, saying, “I don’t think that any rural akim [local government chief] could have done this without help or protection from a higher authority.”

Until a few years ago, Kazakstan’s 2,350-kilometre southern frontier with Uzbekistan was unfenced, with checkpoints operating only on the main roads. However, from the late Nineties onwards the two governments began the process of creating a formal border. The first task was to figure out exactly where lines that up until then had only been roughly drawn on maps lay on the ground.

Once that process finished in 2002, Kazakstan and Uzbekistan began trading any remaining disputed or unclear territory, including homes and farmland. For example, the Kazak village of Turkestanets was awarded to Uzbekistan in a deal which allowed Kazakstan to retain an important water reservoir it might otherwise have lost.

When the frontier was finally demarcated on the ground in early 2004, people living too close to the frontier were urged to pack up and leave their houses, as did anyone who suddenly found themselves living on foreign soil unless they opted to change citizenship.

In Kazakstan, the government set aside funds to pay for new houses, promising that no one would be left out of pocket.

According to Bekseit Dyuisebaev, who sits on the joint Kazak-Uzbek government commission which carried out the border delimitation and decided which homes would be affected, the government of Kazakstan has earmarked more than one billion tenge for the scheme, of which 220 million is being spent on new homes for those who prefer that to the cash. The total also includes 273 million tenge for 57 families who found themselves living inside Uzbekistan after delimitation was complete. Only three families have opted to change their passports to Uzbek ones.

Dyusebaev says 300 households last year received a first-tranche payment of 30 per cent of their house valuation. Another 44 families who opted for rehousing moved into their new homes at the end of the year.

But reports of abuses have seeped out, including Kalmurzaev’s suggestion that some of the money went to people who were not eligible.

Many local people feel hard done by, and agree with Kalmurzaev’s suggestion that what went on was not just isolated cases of misappropriation, but a whole web of collusion.

“Rural akims don’t do anything without permission from the top,” said Bakhriyar, who lives in the border village of Yntymak. “All this fuss with compensation and the sale and purchase of houses is also on the initiative of some high-ranking officials.”

Bakhriyar and others told IWPR that villagers had been pressured to sell their homes, and the new owners had then collected the compensation.

Bakhriyar explained how this form of deceit worked, “Relatives of mine had a farm that fell within no-man’s land and they received an offer from people from Shymkent who wanted to buy their house. [These people] intimidated them and said they wouldn’t be getting money from the state any time soon. So they sold up for 7,000 dollars. And the person who bought their home received [compensation of] over 1.6 million tenge [12,000 dollars] from the state.”

Aisulu, a woman living in the village of Kokterek, told similar stories of strangers appearing out of nowhere to pressure them to sell up.

“They said they were backed by high-ranking officials,” said Aisulu. “They said that it would be hard for ordinary people to obtain the compensation money, so it would be more profitable for them to sell their houses. People believed them and sold up.”

Villagers in Kokterek believe they know which officials at regional government level were involved in this practice. But as Aisalu says, “Obviously, even if these officials were involved, completely different people would be shown as the buyers on the documents.”

So far, however, prosecutions have focused on officials only at district level, not in the regional administration. Officers of Kalmurzaev’s anti-corruption agency serving in South Kazakstan region told IWPR that three district administration heads were charged in October with forging information about property holdings near the border.

These officers and staff from the prosecutor’s office went round checking the data and found serious discrepancies in the data on buildings in the 30-metre exclusion zone. The three local government heads who have been charged are accused of diverting a total of 170 million tenge.

Another Kazak member of the joint border commission rejected the allegations of wrongdoing.

“This is not stolen money,” said the official, who asked not to be named. “For some reasons, the rural akims included residents of houses 80-100 metres from the border in the list of families entitled to compensation. We ordered them to correct this.”

“Furthermore, it was we [the commission] who went to the Agency for Combating Economic Crimes and Corruption with these facts, and they are now portraying it as if they had discovered the crimes,” he continued. “Although, I repeat that no crime has been committed. Concerning the compensation paid to citizens of Uzbekistan, I can report that these individuals defended their case in court, and the payments were made under a judicial ruling.”

Kalmurzaev’s attempt to expose the extent of corruption in the higher echelons of government is perhaps the first time a serving official has done so. But so far, his allegations have not been matched by the scale of prosecutions, which once again have targeted only the sub-regional layer of officialdom.

Olga Dosybieva and Daur Dosybiev are independent journalists in Shymkent.

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