RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, is currently holding an interesting contest called "Kvartirantting Armany" (Lodger's Dream, or Mechta Kvartiranta in Russian) that encourages people from Kazakhstan to blog about their experiences in trying to obtain their own home or flat.
The short articles also contain some personal history from these people, all of whom have grim tales to tell of their efforts to find a permanent dwelling.
I was curious, why this topic? Why now?
People in Kazakhstan have experienced problems with their homes before, mostly due to accepting credit they couldn't repay or simply being swindled. And it has sparked local protests, but they always fizzled out eventually.
So I spoke with Azattyq director Torokul Doorov. He told me that in recent months the service has been receiving all sorts of complaints from people in Kazakhstan about their housing problems. "Practically every other day we get such reports."
The problems vary.
The case of Gulzhaz Abzhamalova in Kazakhstan's central Karaganda Province is an unfortunately all-too-familiar story around the world. She and her three children, now 11, 8, and 6 years old, moved into an abandoned flat in the industrial town of Satpaev. Her husband died five years ago and she has tuberculosis and cannot find work, so the vacated flat was their only option. She moved into the flat despite warnings from friends that the building was also home to alcoholics and homeless people. But she said there was no other choice, occupied one of the flat, and has done what she could to fix the place up and make it look something like a home.
Authorities finally noticed her presence and have ordered her and family out of the building, although those same authorities cannot offer Gulzhaz an alternative place for her family to live.
Further to the southwest, just some 20 kilometers outside Kazakhstan's biggest city, Almaty, there is a different problem for some residents of the town of Koyandy. Authorities recently declared 167 homes in the town were built on land belonging to the government and private entities and ordered the destruction of those homes.
The residents of these homes say they were given the land because they are "Oralmany," ethnic Kazakhs who came to Kazakhstan after 1991 independence. The Kazakh government encouraged Kazakhs in countries such as Mongolia to come their nominal homeland and offered the "returnees" incentives, such as land for a home.
In Koyandy, an Oralmany organization called Zhana Kadam distributed the 96 hectares of land to 180 of the returnee families in 2004. The problem was that 32 hectares of that land was not the organization's land to give.
So, after a decade, the families unfortunate enough to have built their homes on these 32 hectares are being evicted and their homes razed.
Up north by the capital, Astana, schoolteacher Kamar Dosmaganbetova and her family are among many who could not afford the high cost of housing in Astana and chose instead to build a home on the vast empty expanse of land outside the city. She said that after arriving in the town of Ondiris in 2007, parents of her students told her that people could simply build a house out on the steppe. Dosmaganbetova's family was even able to obtain a loan for construction material and built a house on the outskirts of Ondiris. Their home is modest, not even a shower and they depend on a stove for heat.
Lately, she has been receiving phone calls from the local authorities telling her she must vacate her illegal dwelling. She said apparently the land her home is built on belongs to a local businessman who also happens to be, according to Dosmaganbetova, a lawmaker.
Saule Igisinova never says exactly where in Kazakhstan she lives. But she recounts how after she married and had her first child the small flat where the new family lived was clearly inadequate. "We started to suffocate from the cramped space," she recalled. With "barely enough money to make ends meet," she and her husband decided "with a heavy heart" to move in with "the parents."
Saule said later, after the couple had another child, she decided to look into housing loans provided under the "young family" program. "We were a young couple, young specialists, with a higher education" and "a lot had been written and advertised about it." She and husband decided to look into the loans for young families. They discovered after checking the documents carefully that if they took the loan they would end up paying twice the original cost of the flat.
Saule's problem was solved when an elderly "auntie" died and left her and her family the two-room flat auntie owned. Now with three children, Saule said that of course the children are growing and it's getting a little cramped but we're not crying or complaining..."
Yesey Zhenisuly wrote about having three children and looking for a flat. He said landlords prefer families with no more than two children so he "hides" one of his offspring every time he goes to look at a flat.
Ayatzhan Akhmetzhan wrote that Kazakhs seem to have returned to their nomadic roots since so many now travel from place to place looking for a pasture.
Every Central Asian country has been going through housing problems, but Kazakhstan, economically, is better off than the other Central Asian states. The per capita wage in Kazakhstan is about $8,500 per year, more than three times its counterpart in Kyrgyzstan and more than five times the figure in Tajikistan.
Azattyq has been running the contest for several weeks, posting the blogs in Kazakh and Russian, and is allowing its audience to decide who authored the best article.
The winner receives a new iPad. The last day of the contest in December 1, with the winner announced soon after.
-- Bruce Pannier (with help from Torokul Doorov and Galym Bokash, based on material collected and reported by Sultan Askarov, Svetlana Glushkova, Nurtai Lakhanuly)