Land Rights and Wrongs in Kyrgyzstan

Bishkek’s squatters anger local residents, while some observers believe the land movement is being stage-managed for political ends.

Land Rights and Wrongs in Kyrgyzstan

Bishkek’s squatters anger local residents, while some observers believe the land movement is being stage-managed for political ends.

Whenever Kyrgyzstan goes through a bout of political turbulence, people take advantage of the chaos to grab a piece of land in the capital Bishkek. But while the current spate of illegal seizures reflects the deep poverty that affects much of the country, some analysts believe the squatters are being egged on by groups which have their own political agenda.

The current round of illegal seizures has been more or less continuous since a couple of weeks after the March revolution that toppled President Askar Akaev. But the grassroots land actions took a new turn on October 26, when a group of squatters in Karajygach, an area of Bishkek where there is a lot of new – and legal legal housing development, took hostage the governor of Chui region, Turgunbek Kulmurzaev. They let him go after he promised to solve their problems, and then sent a delegation to the government to press their demands for land.

This protest action took place at a time of heightened political instability, as supporters of Tynychbek Akmatbaev, a member of parliament murdered while visiting a prison, were demonstrating to call for Prime Minister Felix Kulov to resign.

Since the squatters began their latest action, they have posted upwards of 150 people outside the main Kyrgyz government every day to ask for plots on which they can build homes for themselves. The demonstrators represent 26 squatters’ associations with a total membership of about 20,000.

In the early Nineties, there was a wave of squatters as thousands of people came in from impoverished rural regions to seek work and a place to live. Unable to quell the land movement, the authorities ended up handing out substantial areas, including farmland around the capital, to satisfy the demand. The mayor’s office notes that as a result, Bishkek still has about eight do-it-yourself housing estates consisting of poorly built mud houses, in some cases with no running water or electricity.

As IWPR reported earlier this year (Bishkek Residents Alarmed at Land Seizures), the phenomenon reappeared in early April. In the space of a week, the number of people marking off areas of parks and other open land grew into the thousands.

The then interim administration appeared hesitant to stop them, in part for political reasons and partly because land legislation is genuinely complicated. After Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, the state promised to give land to those who needed it most, but many had to wait years while some have yet to benefit.

To satisfy some of the demand, the authorities tried to determine those who were most in need, and parcelled out land to them. However, this had the reverse effect of boosting the number of hopefuls. As many as 80,000 people are believed to have submitted applications for land.

As the land movement continued through the summer and autumn, it appeared to gather force whenever the fragile political situation suffered a downturn.

According to political analyst Nur Omarov, that is consistent with a long-term pattern, “The wave of land seizures began with the collapse of the Soviet Union…. Ever since then, throughout 15 years of independence, as soon as a crisis of power starts in Kyrgyzstan, people exploit the situation for their own ends.”

Jypar Jeksheev, who is leader of the Democratic Movement of Kyrgyzstan party and also deputy head of the state commission tasked with resolving the land grab problem, sees a clear link between politics and the apparently spontaneous land movement.

“One gets the feeling that many of the groups are being manipulated adroitly; they are being sent out to seize land. They include people who genuinely do need land, but there are also carpetbaggers trying to get expensive plots of land on the sly,” he said.

“The most dangerous aspect is that very soon, the demands of these people may shift from the social to the political level. It will then be very difficult for the authorities to solve this conflict.”

Askar Mombekov, an expert adviser to the government, agrees that there are political forces driving the protests. He says this is indirectly confirmed by the fact that the protests continue despite clear statements from the government that no more land will be forthcoming.

“This really is a motley group,” he commented. “I’ve been following this situation since 1997. The most interesting thing is that the numbers grow every year, but the heads of the [squatters’] associations change constantly.”

Speaking of the current demonstration, Mombekov said, “They have divided up into three groups of 150 to 200 people, which each take turns at protesting. It’s a means of exerting pressure. That is, there are forces in the country that are interested in destabilising the situation, and these people are puppets in their hands.”

As the squatters invade land that already belongs to city residents or farmers – since the capital’s boundaries include some farming areas – they are naturally met with resentment and hostility.

In early October, one such dispute in the village of Kokjar turned violent, resulting in three people injured. A stand-off later in the month in another village, Novopokrovka, apparently sparked the protests by squatters in central Bishkek.

Anatoly Tarakanov, the head of the village council, recalled, “On 23 October, around 500 of people acting as scouts appeared in fields belonging to Novopokrovka. The next day, a crowd three times that number turned up and started dividing up the land - driving in pegs and stretching ropes between them, and trampling the remaining vegetable harvest that had not yet been gathered in.”

News of the squatters’ arrival spread like wildfire and about 700 villagers came out to defend their land, some on horseback. According to Tarakanov, “The squatters attempted to provoke a conflict, but the residents kept control of themselves and calmly forced out the occupants. It was after this that the squatters began protesting outside Government House.”

According to Tarakanov, the squatters told local officials that orders to allocate the land to them had come right from the top. In turn, the Novopokrovka residents sent an open letter to the government demanding an end to such incidents.

“Attempts to seize land illegally are always made when there are disturbances in the country. And the squatters are random individuals who are being controlled by dubious forces,” said the statement.

The Kyrgyz authorities are now taking a harder line than they did immediately after the March revolution, and say the land allocations have come to an end.

“The demands made by these people [squatters] are understandable, but their methods are illegal,” Bishkek mayor Arstanbek Nogoev told IWPR. “It does no credit to our republic.”

On October 27, the day after the land protest began, first deputy prime minister Daniyar Usenov, who has since left office, met demonstrators and told them, “Not a single square metre of land in Bishkek is going to be handed out. The authorities will not allow the seizure of lands which are [currently] used as allotments and other plots in accordance with the land law. Private property is inviolable.”

President Kurmanbek Bakiev took the same line, telling reporters on November 2 that “land is not elastic. I can say definitively that land will no longer be allotted for private housing in Bishkek. There are people here who do not want things to be calm in Bishkek, and they are stirring people up”.

Despite such statements, the demonstration has continued.

“We demand that Bakiev fulfil his electoral promises and allocate land to us,” said one of the participants, Saltanat Toktogulova, who says she came to the capital from Tokmok 20 years ago and has had to live in rented accommodation ever since. “We suffered under Akaev for 15 years and waited for someone to pay attention to our problems. The revolution happened, but no one cares about us now, either. I have three adult children, and we are cooped up in two rooms. How are we to live?”

Another protester, Urmat Koenov, has been living with his five children in a worker’s hostel in Bishkek for 14 years after leaving the southern Batken region to escape unemployment. He feels he is being cheated of his rightful claim to a home of his own.

“I’ve gathered all the documents I need, I’ve wasted so much nervous energy and money - and now I’m told they’re not going to give me anything. They’d be better off shooting me right away than tormenting me like this. I’ll stand my ground to the very end, until I am given a plot on my native soil,” he said.

This IWPR contributor visited the Karajygach housing estate, one of the main areas where the squatters are concentrated. They appeared to be organised, with lists of people claiming rights to land, and even say they have organised a rota of people to stand guard in case the authorities try to evict them.

“There are now 1,100 people in our association. They all have documents for land, so the authorities have no right to turn us down,” said a woman called Aigul who refused to give her surname. “We need to live somewhere, to have children and bring them up.”

Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.

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