Kazakstan: Trouble in Suburbia

The Almaty mayor's office says many homes in outlying districts are illegal, but knocking them down will affect some of the city's poorest.

Kazakstan: Trouble in Suburbia

The Almaty mayor's office says many homes in outlying districts are illegal, but knocking them down will affect some of the city's poorest.

A decision to demolish homes to make way for a new urban development in Kazakstan's commercial capital Almaty has caused an outcry from residents and their supporters.



On April 5, court officers, prosecution service staff, police and firemen moved into the Shanyrak district in a concerted effort to knock down buildings that deemed to be illegal. Police cordoned off streets as heavy equipment was brought in.



But local residents reacted swiftly: whole families came out into the street and pleaded with the demolition squads not to start work. Eyewitnesses told IWPR that bulldozer drivers and other workers brought into Shanyrak refused to dismantle any homes.



In Shanyrak and in Aigerim, a neighbouring district, 20 houses were taken down.



The city authorities say the homes have to go because they do not exist on the land registry, and the space is needed for ambitious new development plans for Almaty. But residents are receiving backing from a coalition of nationalist groups who cite the eviction attempts as an example of how the poorest layer of ethnic Kazaks are marginalised by the onward march of modernity.



Many of the people here are not true squatters – they acquired the right to live in these outlying city suburbs legally - but they have fallen foul of a change in the area's administrative status.



Shanyrak is a product of Almaty's recent history of outward expansion, as the centre of business activity in Kazakstan, even thought the capital is now Astana.



To accommodate this growth, the city acquired additional lands from the surrounding Almaty region, which is administratively a separate entity. As a result, anyone living in these areas around the fringes suddenly found that they were officially residents of a city rather than of a rural region, with all the bureacracy that this change entailed.



When the transfer took place in 1999, there were already at least 1,000 buildings in Shanyrak alone, erected there with the approval of the district-level local government chief who answered to the regional authorities.



However, civil servants in the city's land management committee refused to recognise some of the documents issued by their counterparts in the regional government. They argued that survey and land-register data had been compiled incorrectly.



Clued-up home-owners were able to rush round getting the various documents they needed to make their properties "legal".



But by definition, these outlying areas housed some of the poorest people in the greater Almaty conurbation, who were not well placed to find out what their rights and obligations were.



Many people in Shanyrak are ethnic Kazaks originally from Uzbekistan, Mongolia, China and further afield, who have been encouraged to resettle in Kazakstan as part of an official government policy.



Unaware or perhaps indifferent to their new status as city-dwellers, these people failed to register their homes with the city housing and land offices, even though they had done so with the regional administration. The cost of registration – up to 100,000 tenge or about 1,000 US dollars – will also have deterred many of those on low incomes.



In the prosperous city centre, meanwhile, officials had other plans for the newly-acquired suburbs.



Mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov has a vision of Almaty as a decentralised city consisting of a number of self-supporting areas each with its own infrastructure and other facilities. The aim is to avoid the fate of other world cities, where business activity is concentrated in the centre and the growth of outlying areas places an increasing burden on a limited centralised infrastructure.



In practice, that means clearing away haphazardly planned and sometimes ramshackle homes and replacing them with higher-quality housing schemes complete with the utility systems that are now lacking in areas like Shanyrak.



The mayor's office argues that 500 or more buildings in Shanyrak have been built directly on top of an underground gas pipeline, creating obvious risks. In addition, the development plan says some of the land is needed for a new city bypass.



The construction plans have translated into repeated confrontations between locals and the city authorities for several years now, with protesters bieng arrested and detained periodically.



At least 17 people were detained when police broke up a rally in Shanyrak on March 20. Most were fined and one charged with assaulting a police officer, according to a statement issued by the Socialist Resistance group, some of whose members were among those detained.



As usual, officials waited until the spring thaw this year before trying again.



One woman from Shanyrak, who asked not to be named, told IWPR she believed the mayor's office had gone back on a pledge not to destroy existing homes. She suggested the promise was a false one made to win people's support in the December presidential election, won by the incumbent Nursultan Nazarbaev.



“The city authorities played a trick: last year, before the election, they promised not to touch houses that were already built, and to start construction on empty land,” she said.



The issue was raised in parliament on several occasions last year, although no action has resulted.



Andrei Grishin, who works for the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, believes the authorities' actions are counterproductive.



“By doing this, the regime is creating a new opposition for itself,” he said.



The residents already have a diverse range of political groups backing their cause. As almost everyone here is ethnically Kazak, the case has attracted attention from groups with a nationalist flavour. A coalition of Kazak nationalist groups including Alash, Azat (Liberty), the Kazak Memlekety (Kazak State) People’s Front, Khalyk Dabyly (People's Alarm Signal), Ult Tagdyry (Fate of the Nation) and the Zher-Ana (Earth Mother) Association have formed a coalition to defend residents' rights in areas like Shanyrak.



Some small leftist groups such as Socialist Resistance and the Almaty Workers’ Movement are also supporting the residents' case.



Aron Atabek, a well-known poet who heads Kazak Memlekety's political council, has even written to President Nazarbaev’s wife Sara Alpysovna, asking her to intervene.



“Why not show some humanity and philanthropy, and legalise these miserable 0.06-hectare plots for these Kazak families for whom these pieces of land are the only way to survive in an environment of unchecked capitalism?” he said in the letter.



Atabek thinks residents should either be granted their current plots or given new ones in exchange, no matter what their current legal status is.



Dos Kushim, who is head of the Ult Tagdyry movement, blames what he says was procrastination under the rule of a former Almaty mayor, and like Atabek believes the solution lies in either granting legal rights to the de facto owners, or offering them equivalent housing elsewhere.



Kushim added a warning that the heavy-handed approach will not work, and could spark social unrest.



"The authorities should not radicalise matters,” he said.



“If they are not interested in helping ordinary people, the Shanyrak problem will be solved by the people.”



Gulmira Arbabaeva is an independent journalist in Almaty.



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