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Land Sales Unearth Kazakhs' Love For The Motherland

  • Merhat Sharipzhan
  • Michael Scollon

Kazakhs rally against the sale of land to foreigners in Atyrau on April 24.

Kazakhs rally against the sale of land to foreigners in Atyrau on April 24.

The crowd parts as the elderly woman in the conservative beige overcoat and white head scarf makes her way to the front, demanding to be heard.

"We will never allow them to sell our land!" Ogiza Makhambetova shouts, pumping her raised right arm defiantly. "Let them shoot us! I am ready to die!"

But the lifelong geologist really gets the crowd roaring when she demonstratively tugs at the lapels of her overcoat, exposing the traditional Kazakh camisole she is wearing underneath.

Fellow protesters quickly step in to cover her up, but it's already been revealed that for the Kazakh people, their land is a point of national pride.

This Land Is Our Land

The protesters had come out in large numbers -- in the high hundreds, or a few thousand, depending on estimates -- for an unsanctioned rally in an unauthorized place.

But the main square of Atyrau, capital of western Kazakhstan's agriculturally challenged but oil-rich Atyrau Province, was the perfect setting.

They gathered at the foot of a large monument to Isatai Taimanuly and Makhambet Otemisuly -- local heroes who rebelled against Russian ownership of Kazakh land in the 19th century. There they protested against government plans to soon put 1.7 million hectares of fallow Kazakh agricultural land up for auction as of July 1.

The government's idea is that it can make poor or unused land productive again under the stewardship of private owners, all in accordance with amendments to the Land Code adopted in November.

But ever since Kazakh Economy Minister Erbolat Dosaev announced the auction on March 30, public anger has spread on social media and in cities across the country.

One major concern is that the land will not go to small farmers, but to moneyed elites. That fear was expressed by an unidentified protester at the April 24 rally in Atyrau who suggested that oligarchs, after having "bought everything else in the country," would now be able to buy "sacred Kazakh land."

The second is that foreigners -- specifically, the Chinese -- will end up sowing Kazakh fields. Views on that prospect are spelled out clearly on signs held up in Atyrau: "The destiny of the land is the destiny of the nation!" and "Selling the land is selling the motherland!"

"These two lost their lives fighting for the land!" shouts an unidentified protester standing near Istatai and Makhambet's monument. "They did not fight for their own property. They fought and died for our land! They started their fight when the land started being taken and sold!"

WATCH: People gathered in Kazakhstan to protest against a government decision to privatize agricultural land. In the coastal town of Aqtau on the Caspian Sea, police intervened and forced people to leave. (RFE/RL's Kazakh Service)

Sowing Controversy

The government has scrambled to tamp down the protests by offering assurances that foreigners will not be buying land, and issuing warnings to anyone who says otherwise.

Agriculture Minister Asylzhan Mamytbekov said on April 14 that only Kazakh citizens and companies owned by Kazakh nationals would be eligible to participate in the upcoming auction, which would involve less than 2 percent of Kazakhstan's agricultural land.

His effort to "clarify the situation" did little to alleviate concerns, however, and within days dozens of Kazakh intellectuals issued an open letter to President Nursultan Nazarbaev urging him "to be careful" and declaring that "the people's opinion must be taken into account."

Deputy Economy Minister Qayirbek Oskenbaev followed up a week later, stressing that foreigners were only legally allowed to rent, not own, agricultural land, and would not be participating in the auction.

That failed to sway the large number of protesters who gathered in Atyrau, however, leaving President Nazarbaev to hammer the point home while addressing the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan on April 26.

The president reiterated that foreigners would only be allowed to rent land under leases of 10 to 25 years, and threatened that "those who spread false information, saying that the land will be sold to foreigners, must be apprehended and punished."

The next day, hundreds came out for rallies in the northwestern city of Aqtobe and the northeastern city of Semei, arguing that Kazakh land should not be owned -- or rented, for that matter -- by anyone but Kazakhs.

WATCH: Protests were held in two Kazakh cities against a government decision to privatize agricultural land. At the rare public demonstrations in Kazakhstan on April 27, speakers called for the land to be kept in public hands and not rented to foreigners. (RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and amateur video)

On April 28, dozens gathered in the center of the city of Aqtau in Kazakhstan's west, protesting the government's decision. However, when the protesters started criticizing Nazarbaev personally, police interfered and forced the protester to leave.

Long Row To Privatize

As Kazakhstan made the transition from a planned to a market economy, the government for years tried to address the Soviet legacy of state-owned collective farms and sell citizens on the idea of land privatization.

The effort has encountered stiff resistance, however -- even causing the government led by Imanghali Tasmaghambetov to resign in 2003 after lawmakers refused to support a bill on land sales.

This time, lawmakers are behind the arguments laid out by Economy Minister Dosaev when he presented the proposed Land Code amendments to the upper house of parliament last year.

He noted that nearly all of the country's agricultural land was being leased long-term from the government, with only 1.2 percent in private hands. Selling the land to private entities by way of auctions, he argued, would help increase land values, while also giving farmers the first opportunity to buy land they currently rent -- at a 50 percent discount.

Lawmakers were sold, and passed the bill. But the people are still not buying it.

Deep-Rooted Concerns

There is a historical basis for Kazakhs to be wary of land transfers.

There was the decision under tsarist rule to allow Russian settlers to own Kazakh land, which played a large part in the 1836-38 rebellion in which Taimanuly and Otemisuly played prominent roles.

There were also the treaties between the Russian Empire and China that divided up Central Asia in the 18 century, and whose repercussions are still felt in Kazakhstan. The treaties have left Turkic-speaking Muslim Uyghurs in what is today China's Xinjiang Province, and ethnic Kazakhs living in northwestern districts of the province.

And then there was the Soviet experience, during which Central Asian borders were shifted.

After the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917, many areas historically populated by Kazakhs were hived off to the Soviet Russian regions of Altai Krai, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Tyumen, and Astrakhan. Even the first capital of Soviet Kazakhstan, Orenburg, was incorporated into Russia in 1925 because of a border change.

Now, years after the fall of the Soviet Union, many Kazakh believe their land is again under threat.

Trust Issues

One of the organizers of the Atyrau gathering, Talghat Ayanov, underscored the distrust protesters feel toward Astana.

"The decision to sell land was made without taking into account the opinions of ordinary people," he told RFE/RL's Current Time television on April 27. "We are afraid that the government might use this law to satisfy their own needs, as they have been doing for a long time using other laws and regulations they have established for themselves."

Such sentiments do not often reveal themselves in Kazakhstan, where the authorities took steps to limit public protests following deadly unrest in the western city of Zhanaozen in 2011.

But being obedient is something best left to lawmakers, the elderly Makhambetova told her audience in Atyrau. "It is written in our constitution that the land belongs to the people. Now they are amending it. The lawmakers are doing it," she shouted.

"But who are they? They are those who lie down when they are ordered to lie down, they are those who sit when those above them order them to sit."

It is in times like these, she harangued, that the people must "gather like this to show our common fist to them openly and clearly!

Written by Merhat Sharipzhan and Michael Scollon, with reporting by Sania Toiken of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, and Current Time television