Trouble in suburb. The dark side of post-Soviet development in Kazakhstan

By Sarah Stuteville
June 28, 2006

ALMATY, Kazakhstan — The sounds of construction are ubiquitous in Almaty. Pounding jackhammers, whining saws and lumbering bulldozers are at work on almost every block of this green, mountain-rimmed Central Asian city. This breakneck development takes place alongside expensive bistros and Mercedes dealerships that cater to a new generation reveling in the riches of recently discovered oil and gas reserves, giving this city — once considered a sleepy Soviet outpost — a powerfully wealthy and cosmopolitan veneer.

But all is not well in this city lauded as an economic giant in the region, a model of expedient privatization and post-Soviet development. Kazakhstan’s reality check lies only a few miles outside the city center, where a growing movement of discontent among those left behind by the recent boom tells a very different story and reveals a country developing on the shaky foundations of corruption and disparity.

“The oil boom provided enormous wealth,” says Yevgeniy Zhovtis, founder of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, “but it only happened for some and they are concentrated here in the city. Economically speaking, in Almaty you are Europe, but 10 kilometers outside of the center, you are in Asia.”

Demolitions for Development
Nowhere is the economic and cultural schizophrenia of Kazakhstan more pronounced than in the embattled community of Shanyrak on the fringes of Almaty. Here more than 100,000 poor and working class people have found themselves pitched against a government determined to sell their property to the highest bidder — in this case a developer looking to build a water park — and clashing with police squads sent to forcibly push residents out. Ironically, it was this very government that less than a decade ago encouraged Shanyrak into existence.

When the Soviet Union fell and Kazakhstan became an independent nation in 1991, there was a concerted effort on the part of the newly formed government to integrate ethnic Kazakhs, many of whom lived in far-flung rural regions, into urban centers dominated by ethnic Russians. Those lured by promises of cheap land in the outskirts of cities like Almaty bought modest plots from local officials and set to work building new lives in a brand new country.

But alongside rapid development and oil prosperity, a culture of corruption has also flourished. With real estate prices in Almaty now rivaling those of many European cities, the city’s government has decided to reclaim surrounding land for resale to buyers wealthier than migrating Kazakhs driven from their villages by a collapse of rural industries and infrastructure.

Suddenly, Shanyrak homeowners’ deeds are no longer honored; government officials now claim that local people sold them the land illegally. Others, who have squatted land here for years by paying out regular small bribes, have no assurance of long-term legal rights to the property they’ve developed. This conflict came to a head two and a half months ago when police arrived with sledgehammers and bulldozers.

A man with children
Vladimir Kahimov is one of the few ethnic Russians who live in the settlements, which are largely populated by Kazakhs from rural areas, like his wife, Korlan. Many Russians left Kazakhstan during the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Photo: Alex Stonehill


“Coming home from work down the main road one night in April, I was met by my youngest daughter who was yelling, ‘Father, father, they are destroying the house!’ ” recalls Vladimir Kahimov, a security guard in Almaty and father of four. “She is sometimes a mischievous child, so at first I thought, ‘What kind of joke is this to make?’ But then I saw the police and I knew that it was true.”

Kahimov and his neighbors had previously received a letter demanding that all residents leave their homes, but no demolition date was given and Shanyrak residents who insist that they have legal rights to their homes say they ignored the notice. Ten homes have been destroyed in Shanyrak in the past six months, but in every case the community immediately pooled their resources and rebuilt the houses within days, in keeping with the Kazakh tradition of Ashar — collective house-building. They say they will continue to do so and have no intentions of capitulating to the government.

“I bought this land for $1,500 a year and a half ago,” says Kahimov, standing next to rows of trenches and dirt mounds dug by Shanyrak residents in an attempt to hinder future bulldozers. “They can’t destroy our community because we can rebuild our houses in one day. This is our home and whatever happens we will continue to live here.”

This spirit of resistance has grown throughout Almaty’s unincorporated communities, often referred to as “settlements,” which are home to almost 10 percent of the city’s population. The past year has brought an onslaught of demolitions and battles with police, with more than 100 houses destroyed, but it has also fostered a sense of solidarity, forming these communities into a cohesive political force.

Their growing movement has gained support from opposition parties who see such disenchanted citizens as a potential constituency — especially in light of last year’s revolution in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, which was largely fueled by similarly disenfranchised rural populations and citizens frustrated by government corruption. Public sympathy has also been strong, and private companies have refused to perform demolitions — meaning that police, or even city prosecutors, have had to swing the sledgehammers themselves.

Recent legislation, to take effect in July, will officially secure land rights for current inhabitants of properties in Almaty. While there is hope that this may alleviate some of the problems in the settlements, residents fear the new law is intended only to protect the rich. Many say it was passed to serve the wealthy who land-grabbed in the immediate wake of the Soviet collapse, and will not be enforced in favor of settlement residents unable to offer substantial bribes to politicians and officials.

“If I were a rich woman, I would be outside of the problem,” says Maysara Biahmetova, a retired teacher who saw her home recently destroyed. “Now it is as before, during the Communist Revolution, when the poor fought against the rich and we must join all of the settlements together. No one else will protect us. Only together will we stop them.”

Joining Together
Twenty miles across town, 40 people lie on iron bed frames, their pale faces illuminated in blue by the tarp that shelters them. Their headbands, torn from tablecloths and T-shirts, announce the name of their community: Bakai. They are entering their second week of hunger strike.

It was here on Feb. 21 that police stormed their settlement, while most residents were gathered outside of the town celebrating a local holiday, and set to work pulling apart their humble clay brick and corrugated tin houses.

Battle in Bakai
Journalists from the International Bureau of Human Rights in Almaty were present for many of the battles between Bakai residents and police in April.

Journalists of the International Bureau of Human Rights in Almaty were present for  battles between Bakai residents and police in April.

When word spread that the police were attacking their homes, Bakai residents fought back with whatever they had: burning tires, sticks, rocks. They even tried to keep their houses together by padlocking large chains around them, and climbed on to the roofs so the police would be forced to knock them down before proceeding with the demolition. Many Bakai citizens were wounded and arrested.

Despite their resistance, five homes were destroyed that day and Bakai residents say they have lost two or three houses to police raids every month since. They see their current hunger strike, which has been joined by many citizens of other settlements including Shanyrak, as their last resort.

“We are waiting for legislation that promises that these houses are ours,” says Vinera Ismagulova, leaning against a folding table outside of the hunger strike tent that sags beneath the weight of paperwork filed on behalf of Bakai Settlement. “We’ll stay on strike until we get an answer. We will not give up.”

Living Under the Line
It is not only recent migrants to Almaty who are suffering under a new economy of runaway development and rampant corruption. Iraida Bendzya has lived in the rustic Almaty suburb of Mountain Giant — at the foot of the Alatu mountain range, for more than 60 years, since Soviet days when it was a farming collective of apple orchards and vegetable farms.

Bendzya’s backyard is still abundant with cherry trees, tomato vines and raspberry bushes. What her family doesn’t eat she sells in the main market to supplement the meager government pension ($80 a month) she receives. Hens peck the ground at her feet as she proudly wanders her garden trailed by her daughter and granddaughter. When an independent Kazakhstan was born and the collective farm dissolved, Bendzya believed that she would quietly live out her remaining days here in her aging but tidy home of white plaster and blue trim.

But rising out of this idyllic scene, abutting the fence that marks the borders of Bendzya’s garden, is a thick steel pole supporting high voltage wires that run from a nearby power station to new high-rise developments 2 kilometers down the road. Hastily built by Almaty Power Consolidated four years ago in spite of protests from the community, and without regard to established international safety standards, this line has become a source of growing resentment. Like the struggle for land rights in the settlements, this series of 30-foot poles has become a symbol of corruption and greed.

“We don’t even get electricity from this line,” says Bendzya, gesturing up at the pole that looms over her garden. “But everyone in this community is suffering from headaches, dizziness, heart problems, and sleeplessness we suspect are a result of the wires, as well as from lowered property values and the eyesore of the line.” She says even her fruit trees have suffered and that their bark has become dry and brittle.

While this list of complaints may sound dramatic, the dangers of electromagnetic fields emitted by such wires are well-documented. The Aarhus Convention, an international environmental agreement, was violated when the lines were erected in a residential neighborhood without direct community involvement in the decision-making process. Many Mountain Giant residents were concerned enough for their safety and health that they moved out of the neighborhood despite dramatically lowered property values, and a number of homes closest to the line now lie vacant.

Kazakhstan is a signing member of the Aarhus Convention and Mountain Giant residents invoked violations in a court case demanding that the line be placed underground — a project that would cost an estimated $300,000, an amount Almaty’s mayor claims is currently beyond the city’s budget. After numerous delays, local courts rejected the residents’ appeal, responding that Kazakhstan’s adherence to the Convention was voluntary.

Power line
Mountain Giant’s 110 kV power line often runs mere feet from residents’ homes. Photo: Alex Stonehill

The power line follows the main street of Mountain Giant passing small clapboard homes along dirt roads, corrugated plastic fences tangled in blackberry vines, and drab Soviet style apartment blocks with cement balconies crowded with laundry lines and children. But the moment the line ducks underground these scenes give way to the steel skeletons of upscale condominiums currently under construction that developers hope will soon be filled with a nouveau riche clientele.

If the housing explosion continues, this type of development is bound to push its way up the slopes of Mountain Giant, a threat not lost on residents like Bendzya, all too familiar with the property rights struggles in the settlements.

“There are many violations of property rights happening in Kazakhstan today. We are afraid local authorities will destroy our houses and replace us with rich people. Then of course they will take down the power line.”

Paradoxically, the very private-property rights issues that spelled the collapse of the Soviet Union have now become a battleground between rich and poor in this post-Soviet state. When the Soviet Union fell, powerful party members quickly made the transition to become the wealthy elite of independent Kazakhstan, employing the same tactics under a new banner.

But another legacy of the Soviet Union has been a communalist spirit among the working class that has shown itself in the determined struggles of communities like Shanyrak and Mountain Giant.

Nurlybaeva Meirimkhan, 71
Nurlybaeva Meirimkhan, 71, whose house in Bakai was destroyed in April, says, “We have seen many wars, and now another one is passing us.” She proudly wears a medal awarded by the Soviet government for raising 10 children. Photo: Alex Stonehill

“Our officials absolutely don’t care about us ordinary people,” says Bendzya, who has led her community in the legal battles to bury the power line, as she sits at her picnic table amidst her cherry trees. “Prices go up, others get rich, and we see no benefits. Our only choice is to fight for ourselves.”