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Central Asia Report: May 9, 2003

9 May 2003, Volume 3, Number 17

LAND CODE RAISING A POLITICAL STORM IN KAZAKHSTAN. Kazakhstan's draft law on landownership, or Land Code, has generated impassioned debate since it was introduced to the legislature in late 2002. Having worked its way through the Mazhlis (lower chamber of the Kazakh parliament) and now scheduled for at least two readings in the upper chamber, or Senate, before it can be sent to the president for his signature, the bill has already sparked a big political fight.

The Land Code proposed by the government, and strongly backed by President Nursultan Nazarbaev, seeks to legalize private ownership of agricultural land. At present the state is the sole landowner -- a legacy of communist times -- although long-term leasing of farmland from the state was permitted a few years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2000). A previous attempt by the government to introduce legislation privatizing land was abandoned after it was met by widespread protests. The idea of buying and selling land proved no less controversial earlier this year as the draft Land Code was submitted to the Mazhlis for its first reading. It envisaged two ways of acquiring land: either by outright purchase or through an installment system. Furthermore, land could be obtained in perpetuity or on a right-of-use basis for 49 years. Foreign individuals and legal entities would not be allowed to buy farmland. The battle lines were drawn as Agrarian Party leader Romin Madinov called for the creation of a middle class of private farmers, while Communist Party leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin asserted that privatization would violate the constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003). Meanwhile, the government argued that private landownership was a necessary step for the further development of the country's economy.

The Mazhlis approved the Land Code in its first reading on 20 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2003). It required at least one more reading before it could be sent to the Senate. In the meantime, deputies proposed hundreds of changes to the bill. The second reading was held on 30 April. During the debate, the majority of speeches were against the law, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Typical objections to the government scheme, which would affect 44 percent of the country's population, are that it favors the wealthy -- especially since Nazarbaev has said that land should be sold at market prices -- and that it was likely to prove discriminatory toward ethnic Kazakhs. Nevertheless, the Mazhlis voted to pass the bill (with 57 votes in favor) -- but not before parliamentarians had also adopted over 500 amendments to the original version submitted by the government.

Immediately after these results were announced, the government convened an emergency meeting, Khabar TV reported on 30 April. Prime Minister Imanghaliy Tasmaghambetov told the meeting that the Land Code, in the form in which it had been passed, was unworkable. "The great number of amendments have made the key points of radical reform in the agrarian sector almost ineffective. The mechanisms for introducing the institution of private ownership of agricultural land, which were formulated in the government's version of the draft law, have virtually been torpedoed by the Mazhlis," Tasmaghambetov said. Agriculture Minister Akhmetzhan Yesimov concurred, warning of "unpredictable consequences in agriculture" if the law was allowed to remain in its present shape. The ministers also complained that Speaker of the Mazhlis Zharmakhan Tuyakbay had apparently ignored a letter sent by the prime minister's office that argued the government's case. In particular, the government dismissed fears that privatizing land would only benefit the wealthy: "It was also noted [at the 30 April meeting] that the only point at issue was arable land, which accounts for 8 percent of the country's territory. That is why there are no grounds for fearing a total sell-out [of land] and a division into rich and poor," according to the report by state-controlled Khabar TV.

On the following day, the Kazakh Information Agency said that Tasmaghambetov had asked the Constitutional Council to rule whether the Mazhlis's overhaul of the draft law was grounds for calling for a vote of confidence in his government. The strategy seems to be as follows. Within 10 days of the Mazhlis vote, the bill must be presented to the Senate for at least two readings. The government expects the Senate to back its version of the law, i.e. stripped of the Mazhlis's amendments. If there is a surprise and the Senate does not support the original version, Tasmaghambetov will call for a vote of confidence. A vote of no-confidence, triggering the dissolution of the government, requires the support of two-thirds of the parliamentary deputies. But if the number falls short and the no-confidence vote fails to pass (as is likely to happen), Tasmaghambetov will declare that the result means the Land Code can be regarded as adopted without any of the deputies' amendments. A scenario along these lines was sketched out on 1 May by Deputy Prime Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 May 2003).

Meanwhile, opponents of the privatization of land have been furiously lobbying against it. At a press conference in Almaty on 30 April, a group of activists and opposition parliamentarians called the Committee for the Protection of Kazakh Land announced that some of its members had already been on hunger strike for nine days to protest the Land Code, RFE/RL's Kazakh bureau reported. (They eventually ended their hunger strike on 5 May.) A similar press conference was held in Almaty on 2 May. Amantay Asylbek, chairman of the Attan-Qazaqstan movement, told RFE/RL that the Mazhlis's vote in favor of the bill flew in the face of Islamic law which allegedly forbids landownership altogether. Oral Saulebay, co-chairman of the Alash Party, said the legislators who supported the bill were "traitors to the Kazakh nation," adding that "true patriots of the Kazakh land" would never permit it to be bought and sold.

Equally emotional views were expressed at another meeting in Almaty on 5 May. Communist Party deputy Arsentii Apolimov told journalists that the current parliament had shown itself to be "anti-nation" and should be dissolved. Saqyp Zhanabayeva, chairwoman of the Almaty branch of the Workers' Movement, also spoke against the Land Code, saying that the majority of Kazakh citizens were against it, RFE/RL reported. On the following day the director of the Central Asian Agency for Political Research, Erlan Karin, called a press conference of his own, where he opined that the draft law had been adopted without sufficient consultation between the parliament and cabinet, leading to a stand-off that only the Constitutional Court would be able to resolve.

The opposition's punchiest retort, however, came at a news conference in Almaty on 5 May called by the leadership of the Democratic Choice for Kazakhstan (DVK) movement, which said that the draft Land Code should be put to a national referendum. Chairman of the DVK Political Council and Mazhlis deputy Tolen Tokhtasynov told journalists there must be a general public discussion of the implications of the proposed law, adding that the disagreements generated by the privatization issue demonstrated "how acute the crisis in the country's political system is" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 May 2003). The referendum idea could prove to be a political boomerang, rashly thrown by Nazarbaev himself: last October he stated publicly that he would agree to a national referendum on private landownership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 October 2002).

URGENT MEASURES BY CENTRAL ASIAN STATES TO PREVENT SPREAD OF SARS. Fears that severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) could spread to Central Asia have prompted prophylactic action by governments in the region, particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which border China. At a government session in Kazakhstan's capital Astana on 29 April, Health Minister Zhaksylyk DoskAliyev reported that no SARS cases had been recorded in the country but warned that the probability of infection from China was high. Prime Minister Imanghaliy Tasmaghambetov immediately ordered the preparation and implementation of a special program of urgent measures to forestall the possibility (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April 2003).

On 1 May, Astana announced a decision to close Kazakhstan's 1,800-kilometer border with China for 20 days. A decree to this effect was signed by Tasmaghembetov on 5 May, Khabar news agency reported. It said that regular air, rail, and road communications with China would be suspended within three days. The last Air Astana flight for an indeterminate period landed in Almaty from Beijing on 6 May. China's Xinjiang Airlines has also suspended flights to and from Kazakhstan.

The prime minister's decree apparently did not affect cargo, which was being let across the border, government spokesman Murat Buldekbaev told AFP on 7 May. The movement of people has been severely curtailed, however. Chinese citizens were being permitted to cross into western China's Xinjiang Province, but only Kazakh citizens were being admitted back into Kazakhstan from Xinjiang, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported on 7 May, citing information from the head of the health control agency for Eastern Kazakhstan Oblast, Nadezhda Ott. According to Ott, medical checkpoints had been established along the border and quarantine measures had been instituted, although no SARS cases had been confirmed in Xinjiang or in Kazakhstan. The report did not specify what kind of quarantines were in place. A group of Kazakh students who returned last month to Aqtobe from universities in China were quarantined in a summer camp outside the town for one week, although none were diagnosed with SARS (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 April 2003). But Kazakh TV said on 7 May that the names and addresses of air passengers arriving from China at Almaty airport were being written down, and that they were being advised to stay at home for a while, but otherwise no extraordinary measures were being taken. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan's National Security Committee tightened up the country's border with China in the expectation that more people would try to cross it illegally, Khabar said on 5 May.

Tasmaghambetov's decree of 5 May also ordered the suspension of tourist trips to China, and instructed the Foreign Ministry to bring the families of staff members at the Kazakh Embassy in Beijing, businesspeople, students, and other Kazakh citizens back home until the health situation in China normalized. Diplomats will remain in place. The Foreign Ministry declined to say how many people were to be evacuated altogether, AFP said on 7 May. On the same day Kazakh TV suggested that this was because the government actually had no idea how many of its citizens were in China. But RFE/RL reported on 7 May that there were two clinics with up to 60 hospital beds ready for SARS patients in Almaty, according to Amirbek Karabekov, chief of the city's clinic for infectious diseases. Health Minister DoskAliyev told Khabar on the same day that 212 beds had been prepared, presumably in the country as a whole.

Kyrgyzstan has not yet closed its border with China. All cross-border bus routes were suspended in any case after the attack in late March on a busload of Chinese citizens, mainly cross-border traders, traveling from Kyrgyzstan to Xinjiang on business (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March and 15 April 2003). The country has not registered any SARS cases to date. The Kyrgyz Health Ministry announced measures last month to prevent the epidemic from gaining a foothold in the country, reported on 28 April. The ministry has set up medical-inspection posts at all international airports, bus and railway stations, and highway border crossings with China. A ministry spokeswoman, Elena Bayalinova, also noted that a field hospital had been set up at the capital Bishkek's Manas airport, and special wards for SARS patients had been created at infectious diseases hospitals in Bishkek and the provinces, AFP reported on 7 May. Kyrgyz citizens have been warned not to travel to China or Southeast Asia, and Kyrgyz students studying in China have been summoned home.

Turkmenistan has released little information about preventative measures it is taking against SARS. However, at least 14 Turkmen students have been evacuated from China in reaction to the epidemic. Last month Turkmenistan suspended regular flights out of China that landed in the capital Ashgabat until July 2003. Furthermore, the country shelved plans to open a direct Ashgabat-Beijing route on the national carrier Turkmenistan Airlines until 2004, reported on 18 April. Turkmenistan Airlines has also cancelled its flights to Thailand's capital Bangkok.