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Kazakstan's Krishna Community Faces Eviction

Long-running saga takes a new turn as the Supreme Court says Hare Krishnas do not own the land they have settled.
By Abdujalil Abdurasulov
Analysts have criticised a Kazak Supreme Court ruling against the Hare Krishna community’s claim to a farm plot near Almaty, saying it appears to be faith-based discrimination.

In the May 8 decision, judges ruled against the Society for Krishna Consciousness, which was seeking legal backing for its purchase of a piece of farmland which the community now occupies. Many of the analysts interviewed by IWPR argue that the move could damage Kazakstan’s image and its international ambitions.

The Krishna society began acquiring land in the Karasai district on the outskirts of Almaty in 1999. Calling itself Sri Vrindavan Dham, the commune developed as Krishna devotees joined a cooperative of “dacha” or allotment owners paying for the use of land plots, and grew to include 66 homes, in addition to the farmland that is the subject of the Supreme Court ruling.

The court decision is the latest move in a long-running dispute between the authorities and the Krishna group.

The local authorities accused homeowners who were Krishna commune members of not going through the registration process needed to legalise their ownership rights. In a legal case launched in 2005, a court decided that 13 of the homes were not under legal ownership and were therefore subject to demolition.

In November last year, the Karasai district authorities acted on that ruling by tearing down the 13 houses involved.

Other members now stand accused of purchasing their land illegally and of failing to register their houses.

But Krishna community spokesman Maxim Varfolomeev said numerous attempts by members to register their homes had been turned down by the local administration. He argues that the allegations of illegal purchase are just a pretext for authorities to seize the land.

The members of the commune remain in their homes for now, but are not sure for how long.

“We can be forced to leave our property at any time,” said Varfolomeev.

He says the imminent eviction could threaten the very existence of the society - which was granted official registration in 2002.

“Losing the legal address of the society will result in its registration being terminated, and I doubt we’ll be able to re-register even if we find new land,” he added.

Yeraly Tugjanov, the chair of the government’s committee for religious affairs, insists the charges are well-founded.

“We have made so many appeals to [members of the commune] asking them to legalise their property - not on behalf of a natural person, but on behalf of a legal entity – but they have never done so,” he said.

Tugjanov conceded that community members had filed applications to register their property titles, but said these had been turned away because no new claims could be considered while the local authorities’ court action was in train.

The treatment of the community at the hands of the authorities has already provoked criticism from the West. In December, the United States embassy issued a statement expressing concern at what it termed an “aggressive campaign” against the Krishna community.

International organisations including the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and the International Helsinki Federation also called on the Kazak government to cease the demolition of homes and other actions against the community, and to conduct a fair investigation into the case.

A statement from the OSCE's advisory council on freedom of religion last November said that “it appears that state-sponsored action has been focused upon members of the Hare Krishna community in a manner that suggests they have been targeted on the basis of their religious affiliation”.

The level of international concern about the issue suggests that the latest development will damage Kazakstan’s reputation for religious tolerance in the eyes of the world.

“Kazakstan has an image of a country with a high degree of religious and ethnic tolerance,” said Ninel Fokina from the Almaty Helsinki Committee. “This image is being damaged by the government’s actions against Hare Krishna followers.”

Fokina argues that the repercussions might be serious, and may even be damaging to Kazakstan’s bid to chair the OSCE in 2009. The United States and Britain already oppose the Kazak, citing its non-compliance with OSCE standards in various areas including human rights.

Political scientist Sergey Duvanov also doubts that Kazakstan will succeed in its campaign to chair of OSCE.

The Supreme Court ruling is a clear case of religious discrimination, he argues. The conflict between the local authorities and the Hare Krishna community is an ideological battle and is evidence of the negative attitude that the authorities have towards all religions except the two major ones, Islam and Orthodox Christianity.

“Who will allow Kazakstan to chair OSCE if we violate its sacred standard of freedom of belief?” he asked. “This is the kind of attitude that exists under authoritarian regimes. They draw the boundary lines, and such [faith] groups are simply excluded.”

Fokina claims that the selective nature of the legal action the Karasai authorities have pursued show a discriminatory approach.

“Lawsuits are filed only against Hare Krishna followers. They are not filed against other people living in the same settlement who did not register their property either,” she said.

But Tugjanov rejects such claims, arguing that 16 members of the Hare Krishna community have managed to successfully register and “legalise” their homes.

“We have no problems with these homes, and this proves that it is not a deliberate campaign against this religious community,” he said.

Not all analysts are accusing the authorities of religious discrimination. Kanat Berentaev, deputy director of the Public Policy Research Centre, says the real reason why local authorities are so keen to shut down the community may be the soaring price of land.

Land is at a premium in Almaty, and the expanding city is gradually encroaching on surrounding rural land. With big money to be made, the disputed Krishna land could be sold for property development rather than agricultural purposes.

“This is not a political case; it has to do more with economics,” said Berentaev. “The case of the Hare Krishna community is an attempt to redistribute property.”

Prime development spots are easily acquired through murky procedures where a particular property is claimed by some company or individual with connections in high places.

“Somebody wants to acquire this land, and is using every available means to get it,” said Berentaev.

Abdujalil Abdurasulov is an independent journalist based in Almaty.

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