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Kazakh Authorities Make Rare Concessions To Tamp Down Land-Sale Protests

Kazakhstan -- Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov, May 28, 2015
Kazakhstan -- Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov, May 28, 2015

Rattled by widespread protests against a government land-sale proposal, Kazakh authorities continue to take steps aimed at tamping down public anger.

In the latest move, the office of Prime Minister Karim Masimov issued a rare apology for the government's handling of plans to auction off fallow agricultural land to private bidders, and announced the formation of a State Commission for Land that will include opposition politicians and serve as a forum to discuss the contentious issue of land privatization.

The announcement in late March that the land would be auctioned beginning in July sparked protests across the country, fueled largely by concerns that Kazakh land could end up under foreign ownership and the prospect of corruption.

The government -- after initially trying to assuage fears by clarifying that foreigners are not legally allowed to own Kazakh agricultural land or participate in the auctions, while acknowledging that foreigners would be able to rent such land for up to 25 years -- eventually backed down and announced that it was postponing the plan to 2017.

On May 12, Masimov's office admitted to "mistakes committed by the government" in failing to adequately explain amendments to the country's Land Code that paved the way for the auctions.

The office also released a list of the 75 people who will sit on the newly formed commission, including opposition Social Democratic party leader Zharmakhan Tuyaqbay and several political and public activists known for their criticism of the government.

Change Of Approach

The release of the list came less than a week after President Nursultan Nazarbaev personally stepped in to say he was postponing the implementation of the plan, while also revealing that the economy minister who announced it had been fired and commission was being formed to discuss the issue.

The economy minister's deputy was also fired as part of the shake-up and the country's agriculture minister stepped down after being reprimanded by the president.

These combined steps mark a significant change of approach in a country where the views of the public or political opposition are rarely considered in government decisions, and Astana has taken a hard line on dissent in recent years.

Public protests had become rare since police shot dead at least 16 protesting oil workers and their supporters in the southwestern city of Zhanaozen and the nearby town of Shetpe in December 2011.

That ended on April 23, however, when at least 1,000 men and women rallied in Kazakhstan’s western city of Atyrau to protest the land-sale plan.

Rallies followed in several Kazakh towns and cities after Nazarbaev criticized the action and vowed to punish those who spread the idea that foreigners would end up owning Kazakh land.

The threat did not stop activists from announcing that mass protests would be held across the country on May 21, however, leading the government to take a more moderate approach.

Despite the concessions, however, activists have not officially called off their plans to protest.