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

Kyrgyz Land Grab Targets Outspoken Politician

Squatters take over land belonging to a local leader who led anti-government protests.
By IWPR Central Asia
A new squatter movement in Kyrgyzstan’s southern region of Jalalabad has voiced longstanding concerns about poverty and inequality. Such land seizures have become common in the continuing turmoil since the March revolution brought in a new government last year, but in this case the squatters have targeted only property belonging to one man – prominent community leader Kadyrjan Batyrov.

Batyrov insists the land grab is far from the spontaneous action it has been portrayed as, and has instead been engineered by officials angered by his political activity.

On May 27, Batyrov led a demonstration by about 700 people in central Jalalabad to complain that southern Kyrgyzstan’s large ethnic Uzbek minority is being deprived of proper political representation and language rights. The protesters also voiced concern that the government of President Kurmanbek Bakiev has failed to deliver on the promises it made to the revolutionaries – Batyrov among them – who brought it to power last year.

Two days later, a group of 30 women began moving into a student dormitory belonging to the Batyrov University of People’s Friendship, an educational institution set up by Batyrov, a member of parliament who also heads the Uzbek National Cultural Centre of Jalalabad, a non-government community organisation. With their children, the women have occupied the 52 rooms in hostel ever since, even though the building is unfinished and has few doors or windows.

Then on July 3, some 300 people took control of 33 hectares of land and five buildings belonging to a farm said to be owned by Batyrov.

Their leader Manas Bektemirov told IWPR that the squatters planned to distribute the land among 3,500 of Jalalabad’s poorest people, and convert the farm buildings into a school, kindergarten and mosque for their use.

“We have already urged Batyrov to seek a peaceful resolution on the issues concerning this land, but he hasn’t come to talk to us,” said Bektemirov.

Jalalabad resident Zair Murzakarimov said this was direct action to achieve what Batyrov should have done anyway as their elected member of parliament.

“We elected Batyrov. There are many poor people among us, and he promised to solve our social and housing problems when he became a deputy,” said Murzakarimov, a widower who lives with his six children in a one room at a city market because they have no permanent home.

The squatters are a mixed group of Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and say no one instructed them to seize the land.

“We came to get plots of land by ourselves, in order to build a house for the children,” said Kumushkan Joldosheva, a Kyrgyz woman who sells bread at the market.

Matluba Saipova, an Uzbek, said, “Land that’s been seized by rich people should be given to the poor, and the authorities could do this. It isn’t right if some people have many hectares and others can’t even rent a plot of land.”

Jalalabad mayor Duishenaly Mamasaliev said the squatters had acted illegally. “Seizing other’s property is unacceptable,” he said at a meeting to discuss the crisis.

Land seizures by poor, often rural people have been a recurring feature in Kyrgyzstan. On July 4, a week-long confrontation between police and squatters in the centre of the capital Bishkek ended when 24 people were detained for breach of the peace. They were released shortly afterwards.

“The people see everything - some people get everything easily, while others wait for years but get nothing in return for their patience,” said Mahmadjan Abdujabbarov, a well-known lawyer and human rights activist in Jalalabad.

“Squatting is a popular protest against the authorities and the rich. It’s a consequence of unjust privatisations and sell-offs of national assets. Batyrov has fallen foul of this situation.”

It is rare for a squatter movement to focus on just one individual. Batyrov said the reason was that the whole thing was a set-up. He alleged that regional government officials pointed people towards his properties – they would never have known where they were otherwise.

“The criminals aren’t being punished because the authorities are behind them, and the leader of the squatters hasn’t been arrested yet,” he said. “The authorities are employing a cheap way of putting pressure on me for the May 27 rally in Jalalabad.”

The police seem reluctant to move on the matter. Interior Minister Murat Sutalinov refused to intervene unless they were given proper authority.

“The Kyrgyz police will no longer evict people from properties seized by force unless they have a court decision or a warrant from the prosecutor’s office,” Sutalinov told the Kyrgyz parliament on July 4, adding by way of explanation that he did not want his men to have to fight women.

Jalil Saparov is an independent journalist in Jalalabad. Astra Sadybakasova is a correspondent for the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty v Kyrgyzstane.

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