Pitched battles involving Molotov cocktail-wielding protestors and police are a rare sight in Kazakhstan, which has enjoyed a remarkable degree of stability in the post-Soviet era. However, such a spasm of violence erupted recently in an Almaty suburb when authorities attempted to enforce a slum clearance plan. The incident underscores the problems associated with Kazakhstan's rapid economic growth and the widening gap between rich and poor.
Discontent among Almaty's poorer inhabitants has been brewing for months over the housing issue. Many believe greed is a major factor in the government's action, as the condemned structures are to be replaced by new housing developments. Some 500 homes in Almaty's Bakay area have already been destroyed, and portions of the Shanyrak District have been targeted for demolition.
In recent weeks, residents have mounted organized resistance to the slum clearance plan, which was authorized by a Kazakhstani court in February. Inhabitants say they have no clear way of redressing their complaints, or of appealing the judicial ruling.
At the heart of the dispute lies a legal gray area. Some of the contentious areas were originally outside the city limits, but were subsequently reclassified to accommodate Almaty's rapid growth. The city's expanding limits has led to confusion over the re-registration of the residents' land plots and houses. Residents describe paying steep bribes to receive documentation that has now been deemed illegal. Dos Koshim an activist speaking on behalf of the Support for Shanyrak Committee, an advocacy group established July 25 said that 90 per cent of the Shanyrak residents possess documents for their land, but acknowledged that many of them failed to undergo the appropriate registration process, leaving their titles open to challenges.
Underlying the resistance is a sense of desperation in those who have already been, or stand to be affected by the demolitions. Almost all the inhabitants in the slum-clearance zone are ethnic Kazakhs, mostly migrant workers from rural areas. They contend that with land and housing prices in Almaty skyrocketing, they cannot afford to move. Although Kazakhstan is experiencing double-digit annual growth, income distribution is far from even. Average monthly salaries in Kazakhstan in May were just 330 US dollars, according to official statistics.
"There is a major housing problem in Almaty," Koshim said in an August 2 interview with EurasiaNet. "People who come here have nowhere to live, and in the villages there is no work." He assailed authorities over the lack of an internal migration management plan, even though the city needs migrant workers. "The state has failed to prepare a strategic program to deal with urbanization," he said.
Aygul Mukreyeva, one of the unlucky ones whose house in the Bakay District has already been demolished, made an impassioned plea at an August 3 roundtable discussion involving residents and city officials. "Surely the law doesn't say that I, a citizen of independent Kazakhstan, can't live in Kazakhstan?" she said. "We have nowhere to live
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asian affairs.