Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies

under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan

The Address to the People of Kazakhstan by President

of the Republic of Kazakhstan – Kassym-Jomart Tokayev

A strong system «Responsible State - Responsible Society - 

Responsible Person» must be perpetuated in our country.

Slyamzhar Akhmetzharov., Master of Political Science and International Relations, Senior Research Fellow of the KazISS under the President of RK

Abstract. This paper investigates the scope and dynamics of social movements in the spring of 2016 in Kazakhstan associated with the introduction of the amendments to the Land Law. In doing so, author determines the core reasons for the collective actions of the people, main actors responsible for driving demands of people to the authorities as well as the state’s responses for mitigation of the requests of the key protesting stakeholders. The impact of Land commission on the resolution of the collective action as well as improving the state-society relationships is described. Also, the implications of the events on further government policies are presented. Key words: collective action, land reform, land commission, demonstrations, negotiations

Introduction The spring of 2016 has been marked by the widespread social movements in Kazakhstan. The social unrest and subsequent demonstrations of citizens have occurred across the different regions. In terms of scale and magnitude these demonstrations were the largest in the history of independent Kazakhstan. It worth considering in detail the development of collective action of citizens and subsequent response of government.

1. The roots of the problem

In September 2015 the Ministry of National Economy introduced the bill into the parliament about the amendments to the Land Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan. According to the reports of Ministry throughout the Kazakhstani independence period the land has failed to become the effective market tool and asset for the agriculture. The vast majority of agricultural lands 98,7% was on a long-term lease, while only 1,3% of agricultural land was privately owned. The low renting fees of the land resulted in negative externalities, as the state’s agricultural lands were not involved into the market activities; also, tenants were not motivated to introduce new technologies for the cultivation of lands [1].

In order to address these issues Ministry of National Economy suggested to change the legislature to transfer the lands of agricultural purposes from government property into the private property through the mechanism of auctions. In general, it was assumed that the transfer of agricultural lands from government into private ownership would create conditions for development of the land market, improve the system of registration of land rights and transactions with it. However, there were two controversial issues in the new amendments that captured the public attention. Firstly, the amendments provided opportunities for the joint Kazakh and foreign enterprises to purchase agricultural lands on the condition that foreign share in the enterprise is less than 50%. Secondly, the foreign individuals and enterprises could lease the agricultural lands for the term of 25 years.

It should be acknowledged that in Kazakhstani context the land represents the sensitive issue for ordinary citizens. This is mainly due to historical narrative that land is considered as the primary asset of the nation – “land is the legacy of ancestors”, “the land that has been protected by spears and brute force from invaders”, etc. [2]. That is why, provision of opportunities for foreigners to lease the agricultural lands resulted in the social outcry. In the peoples’ understanding there was no guarantee that foreign individuals and companies would return back the agricultural lands after the expiration of rent contracts. Also, there was a fear that foreign individuals and companies can bribe local authorities and transfer the lands into private ownership.

2. Chronology of protests

On 30 March, 2016 the Ministry of National economy officially announced the start of sales of 1.7 million hectares of agricultural land from 1 July, 2016. This message has triggered the huge wave of discontent and anxiety in a society, which were expressed through the posts and publications in social networks, mainly via Facebook. Subsequently, frustration of public has transformed into the appeals to go out to protest rallies. As a result, the number of demonstrations has passed through the regions of the Kazakhstan (Table 1).

Table 1. The timeline of main demonstrations against the land reform in the regions of Kazakhstan in 2016.

13. Protests in action: stakeholders, motivations and demands.

The application of advocacy coalition framework on the collective action against the land reform in Kazakhstan provides an opportunity for determining the key stakeholders and their motivations. Generally speaking, protesters could be divided into the three main categories.

First and the most extensive category were the right-wing patriots. For this group, shared culture, language and land were associated with the national identity and sovereignty. Their motivations to participate in demonstrations were pushed forward by their desire to protect the land from any kind of foreign ownership. This category of Kazakhstani society mainly perceived the foreign companies that operated in the country as the threat for local economy and local producers.

The next category of protesters included those groups of population that have been financially disadvantaged due to ongoing economic crisis. On macro level the decrease of oil prices in the global market as well as the economic sanctions against Russian Federation have negatively affected the Kazakhstani economy. Thus, many Kazakhstani companies both in quasi-government and private sectors in order to stay in the market were pushed to initiate cost optimization procedures. One of the widespread methods included the transfer of workers from full-time to part-time employment. As a result, many workers have been forced to handle with lower salaries [13]. At the same time, the devaluation of tenge by National bank of Kazakhstan has adverse effect on those citizens who took out mortgages in US dollars. They faced difficulties in ensuring their regular payments to the Kazakhstani banks [14]. So, financially disadvantaged category of people used the land reform protests as an opportunity to express their own concerns regarding the economic policies.

The last category of protesters consisted from Kazakhstani farmers who already rented agricultural lands from government. For these farmers, the introduction of amendments to the Land law implied the obligation to buy out the leased lands after the rent agreements expire. From economic perspective it is more rational to rent agricultural lands for 49 years, rather than to buy lands into the private ownership, especially when the size of farms are in hundreds and thousands of hectares. At the same, time Kazakhstani farmers were against leasing land to foreigners and companies with foreign participation due to the possibility of subsequent competition in the domestic agricultural products’ market [15]. So, the farmers’ primary motivations to participate in protests were directly related with the proposed amendments in the land law.

- Geography and Slogans of the protests

In terms of geographical representation, the protests have occurred in western, southern and eastern regions of Kazakhstan. This can be partly explained by the enthusiasm and dedication of civic and political activists as well as their supporters in these regions. In the aftermath of the events, the Deputy General Prosecutor Andrey Kravchenko reported that about 40 people have been brought to the responsibility for organization of land reform related protest actions.

The activists in the cities and regions of Kazakhstan targeted main stakeholders such as right-wing patriots, financially disadvantaged category of people, farmers by special statements and slogans [16]. The main message to audience was that the land will be sold to the Chinese. It was intensified by slogan “Zher Satylmasyn!” [Don’t let the land be sold!].

- Methods of internal communication and accumulation of supporters

The information campaign of activists and their supporters was carried out mainly through the modern methods of communications: sending messages via Whatsapp service and posting publications on Facebook social network. The less frequent methods included: posting and handing out flyers and leaflets on the streets and in transport, as well as oral appeals of individuals toward crowd [17]. Apart from stimulating the motivations of main stakeholders, the use of communication techniques was supposed to inform potential participants about the date, place and time of forthcoming protest actions.

Methods of self-expression

For participants of the land reform movement in Kazakhstan the main method of expression the disagreement with the government policy was the peaceful demonstrations. Most of the time protests occurred at central squares of cities in front of local akimats. In terms of gender and age characteristics protesters were predominantly constituted from male individuals aged between 30-50 years [18]. As news reports indicate the number of participants in protest actions in the regions of Kazakhstan varied from 100 up to 4000 people in each city. While the total number of protesters, who went to central squares during April-May, 2016 estimated to be around 8000 people [19].

- Demands of protesters

The protesters appeal to the authorities included the number of declarations that have been collectively signed by participants in the open letters. The most popular demands of protesters toward political administration included the next aspects:

• Until the end of May 2016, make a change to the Land Law of Kazakhstan with the introduction of an article prohibiting the sale and rent of agricultural lands to foreign companies and companies with foreign participation;

• Issue an official warning for foreign companies operating in Kazakhstan that violated the laws of the Republic and contractual obligations;

• Suspension of Kazakhstani national companies’ privatization process;

• Adoption of a program for the return of state-owned oil refineries, trunk pipelines and other strategic facilities;

• Creation of an independent international commission to return illegally withdrawn capital from offshore zones into Kazakhstan.

4. Government reaction: actors, strategies and initiatives.

It worth considering which of the state bodies were involved in mitigation of the demands of protesters.

• Firstly, the President’s office as the central decision-making authority has actively participated in the resolution of land crisis. This is because the agenda of land reforms was partly mentioned in the “100 concrete steps” policy. Thus, the revision of the statements proposed by protesters was in the scope of President’s office.

• Secondly, the competence of adopting the Land law lies within the boundaries of the Parliament. Both deputies of Majilis and Senate underestimated the importance of the land issue when they approved the reform back in September, 2015. Thus, this time they needed to carefully reconsider the amendments to the Land law according to the adjustments made by responsible Ministries.

• Thirdly, the Ministries of National Economy and Agriculture were responsible for the elaboration of the amendments to the Land Law of the Republic. So, they needed to reformulate the articles in order to meet the expectations of population;

• Fourth, the responsibility upon the implementation of government land related policies as well as communication of this information to citizens belonged to regional Akimats. As demonstrations have showed, the Akimats to the larger degree had failed to explicitly explain to local population about the purposes of introducing the Land Law. Therefore, they needed to make adjustments in these aspects.

- The response of local authorites

Akims and their deputies tried to establish direct contact and dialogue with the leaders of protesters in order to explain the purposes of land reform and indicate the misunderstanding of protesters regarding the key aspects of amendments. At the same time the local authorities were accompanied by prosecutors, who informed protesters about the illegality of current demonstrations and the need to negotiate protest actions in advance with local authorities.

- The President’s response First President Nazarbayev hold an emergency meeting, where he indicated the key faults made by ministries and akimats in elaboration and implementation of land reform policies. Particularly the Ministry of National Economy and Ministry of Agriculture were blamed for the breakdown of land reform in Kazakhstan. Consequently, the heads of these Ministries resigned from their positions.

In order to mitigate the tensions in the state First President Nazarbayev proposed two resolutions. Firstly, he imposed the five years moratorium (i.e. up until the December 2021) on the amendments to the Land Law of Kazakhstan. Secondly, he ordered the creation of special land commission with the inclusion of civil society representatives in order to develop a platform for reasonable discussions of land issues and elaboration of necessary recommendations for government [20].

- The work of land commission

The President’s office participated in the formation of land commission, which consisted from 75 people and included the civil society activists, heads of NGOs, scientists, heads of large farms, deputies of Parliament and representatives of Ministries. The land commission has held overall 9 meetings during the May-August, 2016. It did partially address the concerns of protesters regarding the land. As a result of public discussions, it was suggested by commission to save the opportunity of leasing of farmland by individuals and legal entities of the Republic of Kazakhstan for up to 49 years [21]. However, the land commission has left the question open regarding the land renting possibilities for foreign individuals and firms.


Overall, the collective action of Kazakhstani citizens on land reform has demonstrated the process of mobilization of people expressed through the peaceful demonstrations. The protesters have partially achieved their objectives. The introduction of amendments to the Land Law regarding the foreign participation in the land market of Kazakhstan has been postponed until the December of 2021.

More broadly, land reform demonstrations motivated Kazakhstani authorities to make a shift toward the introduction of socially oriented policies like provision of additional 20 000 university scholarships for graduating pupils, the abolition of income tax for low paid employees, the provision of housing program “7-20-25”, etc. This is because land reform demonstrations showed the political administration the existence of social benefit requests within the Kazakhstani community. Also, land reform demonstrations stimulated political authorities toward the provision of greater opportunities for citizens to participate in the government decision-making process. As Parliament and Ministries started to include more regularly the independent experts, NGOs and civil society representatives into the working groups.


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