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Kyrgyzstan: Voters Strongly Support Land Privatization

Prague, 23 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyzstan has taken a step toward the full privatization of land, becoming the first former Soviet Central Asian state to do so.

A referendum passed by voters on October 17 specifically allows the sale of land into private hands. Kyrgyz officials say more than 90 percent of voters were in favor of a package of five constitutional changes, which included land reform.

A subsequent decree by President Askar Akayev delayed any sale of rural land for five years to allow preparation of a legal framework for ownership. Analysts say Kyrgyzstan is embarking on a course which fits its pro-reform image, but which needs to be handled carefully in order to avoid a number of dangers.

RFE/RL Central Asian specialist Bruce Pannier said, "On the surface, it would look to be a better deal for the farming people of Kyrgyzstan. However, there is a downside to this which the political opposition and even members of parliament pointed out, namely, that the majority of Kyrgyz are not in a financial position to be able to pay for land."

This has led to fears among the population that wealthy purchasers, including foreigners, might buy up land and reduce those working on it to servitude, or turn them off the land altogether.

Also, at present, the general population has little access to capital or credit which would enable them to buy a farm.

Pannier said, "One would think the Kyrgyz National Bank is going to develop a loan program for these people. That was not mentioned in the referendum, and I have not seen it printed anywhere, but I would assume this is what will happen."

The question of who will be able to get good land with the best access to water in the mountainous country is a volatile one. Kyrgyzstan's ethnic Uzbek minority accounts for some 15 percent of the population and is mainly concentrated in the south. They are more likely to be occupied in farming in the plains than the ethnic Kyrgyz, a traditionally nomadic people more used to shepherding in the hills.

Ethnic tensions over land and water have already flared between the two communities. Soviet troops had to intervene to quell riots near Osh in south Kyrgyzstan in 1990. Some 250 people were reported killed at that time.

Even if financing is available to buy a farm, there are other difficulties for private farmers in Kyrgyzstan, as in the rest of Central Asia. They include the private purchasing of equipment and tools, seeds, fertilizer -- all the things which would once have been supplied to collective farms. Farmers must also learn to balance a budget and make independent decisions.

Such challenges are not unique to Kyrgyzstan among the states of the former Soviet Union.

In neighboring Kazakhstan and nearby Turkmenistan, for instance, land can be leased by individuals for a set period, but there are no practical means of developing the land -- no start-up capital, no seeds, no machinery, often no water supply. There is also no infrastructure for delivery of produce, and a non-existent or inadequate market structure for its sale. The result, in Kazakhstan at least, is that many more farmers are leaving the land than are taking up new leases.

In Uzbekistan, which probably has the least reformed agricultural sector among the former Soviet Central Asian states, farming is still largely collectivized.

Tajikistan, which is still recovering from the ravages of civil war, has a mixed system. The government has decided to make available some 50,000 hectares of land, free of charge, for private ownership, and to lease another 25,000 hectares for fixed terms. The land to be given away will mostly go to those residing on or near it. The plan sounds good on paper, but in practice it is beset by corruption. Critics say the local chiefs or groups of armed men take the land for themselves, thwarting the original intention of its broad distribution.

The issue of private land ownership is one which is largely unresolved across the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In Russia, the opposition-dominated lower house of parliament continues to block a rural land bill backed by President Boris Yeltsin. In Ukraine, the 1996 constitution provides for private ownership, but no legislation exists as of yet, and the communist-led parliament remains strongly opposed.

The Transcaucasus states have made better progress. Armenia was the first Soviet republic to embark on privatization of land, in the spring of 1991. It now has private land rights and a working private-enterprise agricultural sector, but one which is hampered by lack of capital for investment and proper equipment.

The parliament of neighboring Azerbaijan passed legislation legalizing private land ownership only in July 1996. Under that law, 45 percent of the country's arable land remains in state ownership and a further 33 percent is owned by local councils. The remaining 22 percent has been divided among some 3.5 million rural dwellers. But the process has been accompanied by many complaints of corruption against local authorities, who have been accused of giving peasants less desirable land and keeping the best land for their own relatives or those who pay bribes.

In Georgia, the process of land privatization is underway but is facing strong opposition from some ethnic Georgians who do not want other ethnic groups to be able to own land.

(Newsline's Elizabeth Fuller and Bruce Pannier contributed to this report.)