Thursday, June 2, 2016

Cultural context of land reforms


In 1980, Kyrgyz-Soviet writer Chingiz Aitmatov (1928-2008) published The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years. The novel opens with Ukubula informing her husband Burannyi Yedigei, a railman in Kyrgyzstan, of the death of their elderly neighbor Kazangap, who died alone in his home. Out of respect for the beloved Kazangap, Burannyi Yedigei organizes a traditional, Kazakh burial “with full honor” (p.25).

As Burannyi Yedigei prepares for the burial, reaching out to Kazangap’s son, acquiring a two-humped Bactrian camel and planning the journey from the Boranly-Burannyi railway junction, across the Sarozek desert, to the Naiman tribe’s cemetery of Ana-Beiit, he is forced to redirect his route relative to the Soviet railway that transverses the steppe, disrupting the traditional path. As Buryanni Yedigei encounters different characters, the intransigence of traditional, nomadic norms and their clash with modern, Soviet institutions emerges as a central theme in the story. 

Each chapter opens with a few lines of poetry (below), reinforcing the notion that Soviet industrialization of the steppe disrupted traditional nomadic routes and impeded on sacred spaces.

Trains in these parts went from East to West, and from West to East.
On either side of the railway lines in these parts lay the great wide spaces of the desert – Sary-Ozeki, the Middle lands of the yellow steppes.
In these parts any distance was measured in relation to the railway, as if from the Greenwich meridian.
And the trains went from East to West, and from West to East.

When Burannyi Yedigei informs Shaimerden, the dutyman at the Boranly-Burannyi railway junction, of Kazangap’s death, Shaimerden responds, “he [Kazangap] completed his life journey.”

Appalled, Burannyi Yedigei, insists, “I’ll pray. I will lay out the dead man. I’ll say prayers.” The dialogue continues.
“Say prayers? You, Burannyi Yedigei?”
“Yes, me. I know all the prayers.”
“And this, after what, sixty years of Soviet rule?”
“What’s Soviet rule got to do with it? People have been praying over the dead for centuries.” (p.21)

In many respects, Burannyi Yeidgei’s journey in The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years and his devotion to traditional, nomadic ideology is a metaphor for understanding the political, social and cultural sensitivities surrounding contemporary land reform in Kazakhstan.

As a historically nomadic people, Kazakhs retain a very intimate relationship with land. There is a Kazakh saying, “land is mother, and you do not rent your mother.” There is also the idea of “Atameken” which means land of forefathers/ancestors (ata is Kazakh for father, and meken is Kazakh for place of living or being). Today, Kazakhstan’s national palace of entrepreneurs – the major organization that includes all legally registered businesses – also bears the name Atameken.

“We Kazakhs fought for our land against the Zhungars [and other tribes]…think of all of the blood shed, all the warriors who died,” Kenzhegali Sagadiyev affirmed in an interview. Having fought centuries for control over the territory of contemporary Kazakhstan, Kazakhs understandably feel a sense of defensive, proprietary ownership over the land and its resources.

Traditional Kazakh mentality also impacts notions of private property. In the United States, an individual or an entity owns title over a specified area of land. This individual purchases the land at a market-determined rate, and depending on the zoning code, is entitled to develop the land how he/she sees fit. Individual ownership is legally codified in a written contract. However, in Kazakhstan, a Western notion of private property ownership has not yet materialized due to a nascent institutional environment as well as the lingering impact of Soviet and Kazakh norms of land ownership. In traditional nomadic culture, each tribe or group of tribes controlled a given area. Tribal ownership over said territory was not formalized through written contracts, but was established through inter-tribal negotiations (or war) and was an understood, widely accepted norm. Each Kazakh tribe had a land they inhabited in the summer, and another land in the winter. This was collective ownership, not individual ownership. Plus, property was collectively owned by members of a tribe, as there was no individual who claimed title over an area. 

When I asked Kenzhegali Sagadiyev how Soviet rule impacted the traditional Kazakh thinking, reinforcing Burannyi-Yedigei’s devotion to nomadic values, he stated, “our Kazakh mentality did not change, and remains to this day.”

An adherence to tradition permeates other aspect of modern Kazakh society. Most Kazakhs memorize seven generations of their family trees, as it is forbidden to marry someone related to you within those seven generations. According to the tradition of Shildekhana, following the birth of a newborn, both the baby and mother stay home for forty days. At the end of this period, family members gather to celebrate the healthy mother and baby’s entry into the world.

With respect to questions over state policy, Kazakh sensitivity to foreign activities on Kazakh land materialize in debates over reforms to the subsoil code and the terms on which foreign companies have access to subsurface resources – notably heavy and rare earth minerals, oil and gas. Kazakhstan has an extremely generous maternity leave policy, wherein mothers can be home with their children for up to three years (though they are only paid during the first year), all the while reserving the right to return to work. All women, even those who are unemployed or work informally devoid of a contract, are eligible for these benefits.

At a press conference for members of the Russian press on the sidelines of the Astana Economic Forum, I asked Ali Abdikarimovich Bektayev, a current Nur-Otan member of the Mazhilis originally from South Kazakhstan Oblast, about the idea of “Atameken” and Kazakh resistance to foreign ownership of the land. I asked given widespread opposition to granting foreigners the right to purchase land, how does he foresee this mentality informing discussions on the terms of leasing land. Will the length of a lease for foreigners be extended to 25 years or remain at 10 years? 

Bektayev pursed his lips, grew reticent for a moment, and affirmed that Kazakhs do in fact have a special relationship to land, and it is unlikely that Kazakhstan will permit foreigners to directly purchase land. But Bektayev was unable to answer my question with respect to the length of leases.

Moreover, at the meeting of the Presidential Commission for Land Reform on Saturday, quoting Marx, one Commission member argued that private property should not exist in Kazakhstan at all. The idea of one individual owning a certain portion of land is ridiculous, as land is not a good (tovar), rather, it is a form of livelihood and the source of all other goods and being. The government should own all land in Kazakhstan, and individuals (including citizens of Kazakhstan) should only be permitted to rent land. Other members observed that if foreigners are allowed to lease land for up to 25 years, over the course of that period, a new generation of foreigners (Chinese were specifically cited) will live there, and the land will no longer be inhabited by Kazakhs, but by foreigners. Another delegate commented, Kazakhs fought so long for their land, why would they give that up?

As an American, from a cultural perspective, I consider the long-term leasing of land to foreigners a positive development, as it encourages assimilation. If a newcomer cultivates economic value and raises a family on Kazakhstan’s agricultural land, then this family will most likely become assimilated into Kazakhstani culture. Their children will attend school in Kazakhstan, forge friendships with locals, and speak Russian and Kazakh. While Kazakhstan does not necessarily require migration to sustain population growth given the high birth rates, certainly any high-value labor should be welcomed – especially in a country that has over 120 different nationalities.

Younger businessmen on the Commission, such as Nurzhan Altayev from Atameken, and Bissetayev, possessed more liberal view towards land ownership, arguing that long-term leases were necessary to secure foreign direct investment. In China, leases for agricultural land are for 99 years. Ten years is simply not a sufficient amount of time for agriculture, where bank loans are made for at least 50 years, and payback period is usually in excess of 50 or 100 years. Plus, it makes no sense if a land lease is for ten years, but a lease on a tractor is for 50 or 100 years.

Other individuals on the commission who were willing to grant foreigners the right to lease agricultural land advocated that leases should come with limitations with respect to visas for foreign workers, lease length and scope of activities.

That said, nearly all members of the committee agreed that Kazakhstan will not permit foreigners to purchase land, echoing the sentiment expressed by protesters on May 21st.

It is also worth noting that this is not the first time in recent history Kazakhstan has grappled with land reform. The introduction of Kazakhstan’s first land code in 2003 – marking the introduction of private property into the legal nomenclature – was so controversial that then- Prime Minister Imangali Tasmagambetov was forced to resign. Since then, attempts to amend the land code, especially in 2011 when the land code was modified to grant companies with over 50% foreigner ownership the right to rent land for 10 years, were met with protests.

In short – traditional Kazakh notions of land ownership influences the debate on land reform today. Both political elites and ordinary Kazakhs feel this intimate relationship with land. In the future, Kazakhstan’s policymakers must reconcile historically cultivated, nomadic notions of land ownership with modern desires to attract foreign direct investment in a legal framework that is consistent with global business practices.



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