Kazakhstan's land reform protests explained


Large numbers of people have been protesting in Kazakhstan over proposed land reforms - a highly unusual move in a country where dissent is not tolerated. The BBC's Abdujalil Abdurasulov explains why the demonstrations matter.

How widespread are the protests?

Image caption,
There is little trust in the government among Kazakhstanis

Over the past few days, protests against changes to the country's Land Code have spread across the country.

First, people in the city of Atyrau in western Kazakhstan took to the streets. Then, demonstrations occurred in Aktobe in the north and in Semey in the east.

Some observers estimate that between 1,000 and 2,000 people gathered in each city, which is quite serious for Kazakhstan where no dissent is tolerated.

What are they protesting about?

People are angry at the changes in the law that allow foreigners to rent agricultural land in Kazakhstan for 25 years.

This law, which was approved in November but will come into effect on 1 July, also enables land to be sold or leased at auctions.

The law fuels one of the protesters' biggest fears - that Chinese investors will come and buy out their land.

It's an emotive subject. One protester at the demonstration in Aktobe on 27 April shouted: "We can't give land to the Chinese. If they come then they won't leave!"

Many fear that Kazakhstan, with a population of 17m, will lose out to its bigger neighbour.

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Kazakhstanis are concerned that under the reforms, agricultural land will be taken over by their Chinese neighbours

At the Aktobe rally, one protester said: "After 25 years, they will stay for 65. After 65 their descendants will take Kazakhstan's citizenship and our descendants will be their slaves."

China shares a lengthy border with Kazakhstan and has been heavily investing in its energy sector and infrastructure.

How significant are the changes to the law?

In some ways, the legal amendments seem quite progressive.

Current state management of the land has proven to be ineffective, and by allowing land to be sold and rented via auctions, the new legislation may in fact add some transparency to land purchases, stimulate innovations and attract badly needed investment in the agricultural sector.

The government says that the new changes in the law will let foreigners rent, not own, land.

"All speculations on this issue are groundless," President Nursultan Nazarbayev stated earlier this week. "All provocateurs should be identified and punished according to the law".

Furthermore, under existing legislation, foreigners are already allowed to rent agricultural land for 10 years - the changes will simply bring this up to 25 years.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The demonstrations could pose a challenge to the leadership of President Nazarbayev

Why is there distrust?

There is very little trust in the government.

Many Kazakhstanis feel that there is a catch in the legal changes and that because of corruption only the rich and powerful will benefit from the amendments, leaving the rest of the population without land.

"You know how things are done in Kazakhstan, corruption is everywhere," said one protester who wished to remain anonymous.

"People simply don't trust that this will all be effective and not misused as usual."

Why are the protests a big deal?

Kazakhstan is a country where no dissent is tolerated and public criticism of state policies is very rare.

The last time a major protest took place, the police opened fire killing 14 people. That was in Zhanaozen in 2011 when oil workers went on strike.

Crucially, this week's protest was not a local event; it spread out to other cities, which is unprecedented in Kazakhstan.

These protests also indicate growing discontent among the population.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Kazakhstan faces economic headwinds caused by the global slump in oil prices, rendering its huge oil fields less profitable

Due to the economic crisis, living standards are declining.

Kazakhstan is heavily dependent on oil exports and because of the drop in oil prices, its revenues plummeted creating budget deficit. The government had to decrease its expenditure, and the national currency lost half of its value, although it's slowly recovering now as oil prices are going up.

All these factors exacerbated the situation and helped to fuel the protests.

What's happening now?

Image caption,
There is little trust in the government among Kazakhstanis

The police have started detaining some of those who participated in the protests.

A human rights activist who filmed the protest in Aktobe says she was taken to the police station "without providing subpoena or any documents" for questioning. She was later released.

"It's done to intimidate people so that no-one would come out and say anything against the government," she says.

Other activists also report detentions.