In early April, the lower chamber of Kazakhstan’s parliament approved the first reading of a bill that would ban the purchase and rental of farmland by foreigners. The bill was called for by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev earlier this year and comes as a deadline looms: The expiration of a five-year moratorium on land sales put in place by then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev to quell large public outcry against a government plan to attract foreign investors to the Kazakh steppe.
Nevertheless, some Kazakhs see loopholes in the bill given that it aims only to prevent the sale of agricultural land to foreigners. On April 24, an estimated 200 people protested the draft bill in Almaty. The unsanctioned protest drew the typical large police response but was far from the size of the protests back in 2016.
The so-called Land Code protests of 2016 cropped up in response to changes in the Kazakhstan’s land code, which were signed into law in November 2015 and set to go into effect on July 1, 2016. Part of Kazakhstan’s “100 concrete steps to reform,” the changes aimed to make unused agricultural land available for purchase by Kazakh citizens or joint ventures or for rent by foreigners for up to 25 years via land auctions. The proceeds of such sales or rental agreements would accrue to the state’s sovereign wealth fund.
On the surface, the changes made sense. Kazakhstan is physically the ninth largest country in the world, with one of the lowest population densities. More plainly: It’s a big country with (relatively) few people. With oil and gas revenues sinking, the authorities in Kazakhstan hoped to offer up another resource: land. But the Kazakh authorities underestimated how easily misunderstood its policies could be.
The issue, for some, is rooted in the rumor that land would be sold outright to foreigners. For others, more realistic fears pushed them to the streets: the possibility that the best land would be purchased by Kazakhstan’s elites for cheap or by the Chinese. Given recent corruption scandals involving Kazakhstan’s elites, the first worry is legitimate. As Bruce Pannier at RFE/RL explained this would not be the first time land transfers and China angered Kazakh citizens. In the late 1990s, Kazakhstan celebrated the fact that it came away from border delimitation negotiations with China with 56.9 percent “of the disputed territory but critics pointed out that the remaining 43.1 percent had been Kazakhstan’s land until the new deal with China.”
As the changes closed in on coming to fruition, a protest movement — fed in part by misunderstanding and misinformation, but also frustration at the government, anger about corruption, and a lack of transparency — grew. In April and early May 2016, demonstrations were held in cities across Kazakhstan, arguably the largest and widest-spread protest movement in contemporary Kazakhstan. As RFE/RL reported at the time, “demonstrations against the proposed privatization of land in the major cities of the east (Astana and Almaty), in oil towns in the west (Atyrau and Aktau), in towns in the north (Aktobe and Semey), and in the south (Shymkent).” [Editor’s Note: Astana, the Kazakh capital, has since been renamed Nur-Sultan].
Nazarbayev’s first reaction to the protests in 2016 was to suggest they were the work of provocateurs. Two prominent activists were arrested for their role in orchestrating protests. Talghat Ayan was released in 2018 and Maks Bokayev was released from prison earlier this year.
After two weeks of protests Nazarbayev pivoted, putting in place a moratorium on the land code changes (at first to 2017, later extended to 2021). Yerbolat Dosayev, the minister of national economy, resigned. (But don’t worry, Dosayev was later appointed deputy prime minister in 2017 and in 2019 made governor of the National Bank of Kazakhstan).
Five years later, with the land code changes pending but the economic logic of privatization still valid, Tokayev has sought to make permanent the moratorium. But as the demonstrations and Eurasianet’s recent reporting on this issue suggests, the matter is far from settled. The draft bill to ban the sale and renting of land to foreigners may appease ardent nationalists in Kazakhstan, but it may also just serve to push such arrangements further from public view.