|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Residents’ resistance in Almata
THE SOUTHERN capital of Kazakhstan, Almata, has over the past few months been shaken by the resistance of residents living on the outskirts of the city to attempts by the authorities to evict them from their homes. Many of these people moved to the city over the past decade in search for work after the neo-liberal policies of the government devastated towns in the industrial regions. The government refused to help these ghost cities, saying that if nobody needed them, they should be allowed to die.
The homes occupied by these newcomers were constructed (without official planning permission) on unused land using scrap building supplies and, over time, even a small infrastructure to service these areas has developed. Now, however, there is an oil-fired property boom in the city and the government, serving the interests of the speculators and big business, has decided it wants the land back to build leisure centres and housing for the new elite. The residents are being offered no compensation or anywhere else to go. Therefore, they are prepared to struggle bitterly against their eviction.
At the time of writing, the residents have won a temporary victory – the General Procuror of Kazakhstan has ruled that the court bailiffs should cease their attempts to evict them. This is undoubtedly a result of the determined fightback that has so far been made. The attacks by the riot police on 14 July were so fierce that one mother lost her unborn baby and an elderly resident died. There are still twelve people in hospital recovering from bullet wounds and one is in a coma. One policeman also died after being doused in petrol. But the ferocity of the clash led to an international protest by human rights, trade union and, above all, socialist organisations.
However, the problems have not been resolved and it is quite likely that further attempts will be made to seize back areas such as Shanyrak. It is likely that the prosecutor is only playing for time, waiting for the publicity to die down and for the residents to relax their guard before once again allowing attempts at eviction. As Kazakhstan is due to take over the presidency of the OSCE in December, it is possible that the authorities might hold back on attacks to avoid further international embarrassment.
Even if no further evictions are attempted, this does not resolve the problems for the residents as it is unlikely their homes will be legalised. The decision lies in the hands of a commission appointed by Almata’s Akimat (mayor), Imangali Tasmagambegov, who has made it clear he will still oppose the residents. Even if the homes are legalised, the mayor aims to enforce a 10% tax on the residents, most of whom do not have any means to pay. This shows the class nature of the recent law granting an amnesty to people who had built without planning permission. It has made it easy for the new elite who have been building villas to legalise them while the poor are not able to because of the cost. In a few months time, new evictions could be attempted, using the excuse that the residents have not used the ‘opportunity’ to legalise their homes.
The regime launched a wave of propaganda against the Shanyrak residents accusing them of being foreigners (most of them are ethnic Kazakhs) and criminals. But this backfired as the pictures of riot police attacking ethnic Kazakhs led many people to conclude that the regime is hostile to all nationalities. When members of Socialist Resistance (CWI Kazakhstan) organised a display of photographs from Shanyrak on Almata’s main street, only one out of hundreds of people who stopped to talk supported the government’s actions.
Notwithstanding the decision of the procurer, police repression continues. Since 14 July, 150 people have been arrested for questioning. Seventeen have been charged with ‘organising a mass disturbance’, a criminal offence. Ten others are in hiding and are on the police wanted list. There is plenty of evidence to show that the police are using torture and beatings. Aron Atabek, a social activist and leader of the ‘Kazak Memleketi’ organisation, has been in prison for over a month. Attempts to frighten the residents and searches for activists continue. In this context, the decision to call off the protest marches planned for mid-August, on the basis that the evictions had been suspended, was a mistake. The rights of the Shanyrakans cannot be protected by relying on such people as the procurer. The protests should have been stepped up.
Socialist Resistance has played a very active role in these events and has helped to develop clear demands to assist the residents in their struggle. Of particular significance has been the production of material in the Kazakh language, which has helped to show that it is not only the nationalists who can speak with ethnic Kazakhs in their own language. Among the immediate demands are calls for the automatic legalisation of all homes in the outlying districts of Almata, and the payment of compensation to those who have been evicted and seen their homes destroyed. In addition, we call for the development of the infrastructure (building schools, hospitals, roads and sewage systems) in these areas. All those arrested in connection with the events on 14 July must be released, and a general amnesty granted. All the bureaucrats and fraudsters who have participated in the corrupt dealings around the housing programmes and the illegal sale of land should be brought to book and punished, as well as those who ordered the violent attacks by the riot police.
But even if the current demands are met, the problems will continue. Building companies will continue to try and drive residents out of the poorer areas by offering them measly compensation so they can build new elite blocks. This raises the need for the nationalisation of land and the building companies under democratic control, so that a genuine housing programme can be implemented in the interests of the working masses. This requires that those currently involved in the protests organise themselves into a wider workers’ organisation and spread the action. Only in this way can we begin to change the social and economic policies of the regime and establish a new form of society.
These events take place against the background of the continuing attacks on living standards for the wider mass of workers. Inflation is rapidly eating away at wages. At the start of the campaign there was a wall of silence in the media about Shanyrak. But as the events began to gain an international echo, the fact that the residents were not only prepared to stand up for their rights but succeeded in forcing the regime to back down, at least temporarily, has raised the consciousness of poorer layers of society. There have been more protests in the large cities against attempts at evictions and there are signs that industrial and agricultural workers are preparing for new conflicts. The latest example is a protest by workers in the Mangistaumunaigas gas company in Aktau.
Whatever concessions are gained in such struggles, the situation will not be fundamentally changed until there is a rejection of the neo-liberal policies that have led to the degradation of society. The interests of the 20 mega-holdings have turned the country into a mere supplier of natural resources to the rich west, to the destruction of the rest of industry, and to the waves of internal migration.
Capitalism in Kazakhstan is proving to be a system of permanent crisis. The deals between the oil monopolies and government to reduce taxes on oil while allowing domestic fuel prices to increase are leading to higher prices on all domestic goods and causing problems for companies in the non-oil sectors. The preparatory steps being taken before joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) only serve the interests of the mega-holdings and energy companies, and are pushing agriculture to the wall. This raises the need to reject the WTO and annul the law allowing land privatisation. The big energy monopolies should be nationalised, together with the energy resources and large factories. There should be a national investment plan for industry and agriculture, including a programme of residential construction. As these demands are a clear challenge to the rights of private ownership and the interests of the corporations, they are only possible if there is a mass movement organised on a clear political programme. Undoubtedly, some office politicians will call this programme utopian. But it is the only way that the residents currently struggling can defend their rights in the long term against the interests of the greedy building companies and speculators.