BORROWED PLACES: EVICTION
WARS AND PROPERTY
This study examines the way the government of Kazakhstan confronted
informal (squatter) settlements and their property in Almaty in 2006. It
argues that the way the state handled the issue as part of a broader state
economic strategy was neither appropriate for the aim of creating a
functioning property market nor for advancing social justice and welfare.
The analysis focuses on the attempted demolition of two informal
settlements, Bakay and Shanyrak, and subsequent events, including (a)
militant and political responses among the residents and their supporters,
(b) the legalization campaign, and (c) the effects of the global credit
crunch on construction and property market in Almaty. The goal here is
to reﬁne the claim to a connection between formal economy, state
practice, and squatters’ experiences.
– In a depression assets return to their rightful owners.
Economic Action in Theory and Practice: Anthropological Investigations
Research in Economic Anthropology, Volume 30, 11–45
Copyright r2010 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
On July 14, 2006 at ﬁve in the morning, police armed with guns, rubber
bullets, and truncheons stormed into Shanyrak, a settlement at the outskirts
of Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan. The attack was expected. A
week earlier a similar operation had taken place in Bakay, another informal
settlement in Almaty that was built on waste public land in the wake of
postsocialist transformation. On that day, hundreds of Bakay residents,
mostly Kazakh migrants from the countryside, watched their homes, their life
savings, as well as their hopes for achieving proper titles thoroughly ﬂattened.
Unwilling to end up in the same situation, over a thousand Shanyrak
residents prepared to defend their neighborhoods, their only chance for a
digniﬁed life in the city. They created a living shield of women, children, and
the elderly. ‘‘Let us be run over, let us be killed,’’ one of the women cried in
despair. They did not carry national ﬂags or portraits of the President as was
the case in Bakay where protesters showed their citizenship and loyalty to the
state, trying to avert forced eviction (Fig. 1). The gravity of the situation was
in the air: ‘‘it might happen that some of us would die,’’ the same woman
said, ‘‘but our children would get the land’’ (Litvinova, 2006). Police swiftly
marched through the rows of crying women, their terriﬁed children, and old
men calling for mercy, and came face to face with militant resistance (Fig. 2).
What was expected to be an easy job turned into a serious battle, however.
Throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the police, at some point, the
defenders got the upper hand, taking four ofﬁcers hostage (Yermukhanov,
2006, p. 15). Three of them were released after the police had promised to
stop the attack, which they did in order to buy time while waiting for
reinforcements; once the riot police arrived, they went in again. The fourth
hostage, a 24-year-old police ofﬁcer was splashed with gasoline and set on ﬁre
(Duvanov, 2006). He died in a hospital 12 days later, on July 26.
The news about the brutal attack on the police ofﬁcer shocked the city; at
the same time, the public understood the position taken by the people of
Shanyrak. Overnight, squatting, which was previously treated as an
economic issue, transformed into a political matter evoking the ideas of
citizenship, social justice, and state power. ‘‘How strong one must hate the
existing [political] regime,’’ asked Galymzhan Zhakiyanov, a major ﬁgure in
a prodemocratic movement in Kazakhstan, ‘‘in order to commit such an
extreme act as to burn its representative?’’ (Zhakiyanov, 2006; see also
Zhusupov, 2006). The dwellings in Bakay and Shanyrak were built outside
the law; however, the use of armed force against its own people was admitted
in public discourse as unconstitutional. Once Kazakhstan claimed indepen-
dence in 1991, the word ‘‘shanyrak’’ (literally, the top of a Kazakh mobile
tent) was elevated into a symbol of home and nation that came to ﬁgure on
the national ﬂag. After the attempted eviction in that very settlement,
Shanyrak acquired a new meaning as an icon of social inequality and
exclusion. ‘‘Initially, [President] Nazarbaev made our villages bankrupt,
pushing Kazakhs to the city,’’ said a 67-year-old man, pointing then to a pile
of rubble that used to be his house. ‘‘Now they kicked us off from our land.
Where should we go?’’ (Yenikeev, 2006). Informal settlements were growing
under the eye of state authorities for over a decade. The evictees held the
state accountable for its latest actions: ‘‘We demand our land back along
with the compensation for property damage, if we are citizens of this
country. If not, deport us from Kazakhstan. Have it in your own way!’’
In 2006, one-third of real estate property in Kazakhstan – 1.4 and 4.78
million units, respectively – belonged to the extralegal domain. Over 50% of
those assets were located in and around cities, especially Almaty, the largest
urban center in the country populated by nearly 2,000,000 people. Most
extralegal dwellings in Almaty were claimed by urban migrants. By the time
Fig. 1. Demonstration in Bakay, July 2006. Photo credit: Andrey Grishin.
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 13
of evictions in Bakay and Shanyrak, Almaty had 29 informal settlements,
built in the past 10–13 years, having a total population of 700,000 (one-third
of the total city inhabitants) in 2006 (Yermukhanov, 2006, p. 15). Such
explosive growth of extralegal property in the aftermath of socialism was
fueled by the failing of the rural economy, the weakness of rental market in
the city, representing a ‘‘shadow economy’’ on its own right, as well as the
rapid inﬂation of real estate prices. In 2006, the cost of housing in Almaty
was higher than in St. Petersburg and Prague (USD 2,000/m
), and even Dubai (2,500/m
)(Shibutov, 2007). Already in 2003,
the President was calling for developing ‘‘measures for the legalization of
property, speciﬁcally, land plots and housing of rural to urban migrants and
small entrepreneurs’’ that were improperly registered, if at all (Karadzhaeva,
2006, p. 11). The government drafted corresponding legislation, passing it to
the Parliament where it was deliberated for over two years. Finally, the Law
on Amnesty in relation to Legalization of Property, including real estate and
Fig. 2. Protest in Shanyrak, July 2006. The Protest Began, however, as a Peaceful
Action Seeking not to Provoke Violence and Military Confrontation. Photo credit:
movable assets, intended to stimulate the transfer of extralegal property to
the legal economic sphere came out.
Not everyone was invited to formalize their property rights, however. The
law was signed on July 7, 2006, the day of mass eviction and demolition in
Bakay that was followed by the attack on Shanyrak. The news of the
legalization and forced eviction thus broke on the same day, creating an
awkward blend of front page headlines. How can one explain this odd
juxtaposition of the planned legalization campaign and violent eviction of
those who were desperate to formalize their property and for whose beneﬁt
that very campaign was intended?
INFORMALITY AND ITS TREATMENT
Neither informality nor eviction or tenure formalization is new to the world.
Overwhelming proportions of extralegal property concentrated in large urban
areas in the global South, such as Mexico City, Cairo, Nairobi, Mumbai, and
other cities, have been subjected to the international development practice
and discourse (UN-HABITAT, World Bank) for nearly three decades. On the
one hand, the stubborn persistence of informality despite (or because of?) the
attempts to regulate or demolish squatter neighborhoods helped to trivialize
their very presence. On the other hand, such persistence helped informality (or
extralegality) to become an important category of analysis that, starting with
Keith Hart (1973), has been deﬁned as a composite of economic behaviors
taking place outside the limits of government regulation. Scholars and
publicists alike have committed a serious effort trying to understand how it
came about, how it works, and how the state responds – or rather – why the
state tolerates informality and whether enforced legality would improve or
harm the prospects of slum inhabitants. In this regard, Smart (2001),Smart
and Tang (2005),andVarley (2002) have argued that the outcome is a
contingent matter depending on local economics and wealth differentiation,
the degree and quality of governance, as well as broader social, economic, and
historical contexts. Their studies have shown that although the concept of
informality is rendered neat and universal, the phenomenon behind it cannot
be isolated as a physical particle but should be treated as a cultural facet
deeply imbedded in the local social fabric. To put it simply: tenure security
provides economic stability; yet, exclusive property rights may not necessarily
guarantee that security (see also Gilbert, 2002).
Hernando de Soto holds the opposite view. In his study of informal
economy in Peru that has gained favor within the IMF and World Bank, he
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 15
strongly argues that the unambiguous property rights will not only further
the interests of the poor but will also ‘‘fuel explosive economic growth’’
across ‘‘developing and former communist nations’’ (de Soto, 2000, p. 149).
Informality in his analysis is equated with deﬁciency. Urban slum
inhabitants, he states, are not poor at all, and yet, because their rights to
assets are improperly documented (i.e., being held in ‘‘defective forms’’),
their property cannot be traded efﬁciently or used as collateral for a loan,
which cuts the poor owners off from the beneﬁts of capitalist economy.
Hence, property formalization that would ‘‘ﬁx the economic potential of
their assets’’ is a must (ibid., p. 48). A ‘‘stumbling block’’ on the way of
formalization, according to de Soto, is an overregulated economy with a
nightmarish bureaucracy that prevents the poor from entering the formal
market. The states with the disproportionally large shares of informal
property are thus the ones that are caught in a contradiction between the
volume of bureaucratic regulations and the institutional inability to enforce
those regulations. In this situation, the state distributes ‘‘charters of
privilege’’ to elites, feeding into corruption, while allowing other citizens to
violate the law, a practice that produced the infamous slums in Latin
America and elsewhere in the ﬁrst place (de Soto, 1989, pp. 201–212).
de Soto thus has given a physical body to informality: slum inhabitants
and poor participants in the cash economy who were pushed outside the law
by the ‘‘cost of formality’’ (ibid., pp. 132–150). His focus on the poor does
make sense; but the drawing of the boundaries around them as a way of
determining the cause–effect of informality seems to be more problematic.
The most recent ﬁnancial market meltdown, for example, helped to reveal
that certain multibillion dollar operations conducted by the US investment
banks, hedge funds, and mortgage institutions for years resided outside an
existing regulatory framework, forming a well-coordinated ‘‘shadow banking
system’’ (the IMF) (Economist, 2008a, 2009). This case indicates that
informality is not restricted to the poor or the cash economy; it also suggests
that the loose state purview can produce it as much as the overbureaucra-
tized. Finally, it reafﬁrms what other studies have demonstrated: that the
boundary between the formal and informal sectors of economy is porous and
shifting, that is, individuals occupying the formal property might work in the
informal sector or beneﬁt from it otherwise and a change in law can shrink,
reshape, or expand informality as a direct outcome or distant consequence.
A case in point is a Thailand’s land titling program that was conducted in the
1980s and 1990s. It has been regarded as one of the most consistent reforms
that delivered millions of titles to individual owners. At the same time, it
created the new informality out of communal land holdings whose owners’
rights lost legitimacy as a result of the enforced private ownership (Leonard
& Na Ayutthaya, 2006). As Fernandez-Kelly (2006, p. 3) has argued, ‘‘the
state embodied in multiple practices, agencies, departments and divisions y
creates the conditions for the expansion or contraction of the informal
economy. Without formal laws ythe informal economy cannot exist.’’
In the 1980s, the Turkish state, another success story, formalized tenure in
urban slums (gecekondular) by transferring ownership rights to the
individual occupants. This program beneﬁted many owners, the state, and
the economy, in general; however, because the land under gecekondular went
up in value as a result of tenure legalization, many small owners and tenants
were subsequently pushed out by wealthier citizens and land speculators.
The same law helped urban businesses that went on to converting former
gecekondular that previously sheltered thousands of people into shopping
malls, business centers, and luxury condominiums and the former residents
energized land invasion elsewhere (Uzun & Colak, 2007). Dispossession by
legalization thus overturns the assumption that it is the weak law
enforcement that breeds informality; it supports an understanding that
people end up in slums when there is no affordable legal accommodation.
This is why eviction never helps to control informality: the poor ‘‘are merely
shifted elsewhere,’’ as Friedrich Engels observed in England in the late 19th
century. ‘‘The same economic necessity which produced them in the ﬁrst
place,’’ he argued about the consequences of a crack down on working class
neighborhoods in Manchester, ‘‘produces them in the next place also’’
(Engels, 1979, p. 74). The formalization program may carry comparable
implications and it often does: the curing of the informality in one place only
reproduces it in another. As Harvey (2006, p. 48) has argued: ‘‘Even when
privatization appears as beneﬁcial to the lower classes, the long-term effects
can be negative.’’ He continues:
At ﬁrst blush, for example, Thatcher’s program for the privatization of social housing in
Britain appeared as a gift to the lower classes which could not convert from rental to
ownership at a relatively low cost, gain control over a valuable asset and augment their
wealth. But once the transfer was accomplished, housing speculation took overy,
eventually bribing or forcing low income populations out to the periphery in cities like
London and turning erstwhile working class housing estates into centers of intense
gentriﬁcation. The loss of affordable housing in central areas produced homelessness for
many and extraordinary long commutes for those who did have low-paying service jobs.
A similar outcome was recorded in the Philippines, where the World Bank
conducted a pilot project on property rights formalization: within several
years, ‘‘all the original dwellers had left because their lots had been sold to
wealthy families’’ (Berner, 1977, p. 31). And the former moved to other
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 17
slums, increasing their size and population density. The states, however,
tend to interpret this regrowth of the informality as a sign that the
formalization furthers land invasion, using it as a key argument against the
transfer of rights. ‘‘The promise of free land y,’’ declared a member of the
Indian Supreme Court while explaining his position ‘‘is a proposal which
attracts more land grabbers. Rewarding an encroacher on public land yis
like giving a reward to a pickpocket’’ (Rajagopal, 2004, p. 243). More often
than not, the states are reluctant to merely transfer property rights to
squatters. Furthermore, the circumstances for squatter populations world-
wide are complex, warning against the ‘‘total war on informality’’ based on
faith in private ownership that de Soto advocates.
As yet another point of
clariﬁcation, it would be important to note that far from all squatters desire
to formalize their rights to property, not that ‘‘they would turn down a title
deed if it was offered,’’ as Neuwirth (2005, p. 21) put it, but ‘‘because private
ownership is not their most crucial concern’’:
When squatters feel secure in their homes, they build, invest, and prosper – and they
don’t need a title deed to do so. Squatters in Brazil and Turkey have erected permanent
buildings without title deeds. Squatters in India have created whole neighborhoods while
knowing that the land is not theirs. yThey buy and sell and rent their buildings. They
negotiate with each other over their future plans for their homes.
In the summer of 2006, I encountered a similar situation in Kazakhstan in
the Zhylioy rayon (district) situated in the Atyrau oblast (region) from where
I followed the tragic eviction events in Almaty. To the outside world, Zhylioy
is mostly known for important hydrocarbon projects – a key factor behind
the country’s economic recovery in the late 1990s. It is less known, however,
that despite the overwhelming presence of the oil industry, this rayon is self-
sufﬁcient with protein food. Animal husbandry was the backbone of local
economy until the oil industry arrived during World War II. The later
development brought considerable changes in local occupations; yet,
livestock breeding was sustained as a major economic practice outside the
oil projects, surviving a series of historical transformations including the last
one, decollectivization, which put out of business thousands of farms across
the post-Soviet space. In the past several years, Zhylioy experienced the
proliferation of small holdings across its sparsely populated area. Modest
houses, mobile tents, and subterranean huts appeared here and there on the
open steppe, indicating home bases of small livestock owners. One day, I was
traveling in the company of a local state ofﬁcer when we saw one of these
farms, small but well-kept, including a freshly painted house, a smaller
storage facility, an enclosure for animals, and a colorful garden with
sunﬂowers secured with a fence made of locally grown reed grass. ‘‘The
problem with these farms and houses,’’ the ofﬁcer told me, noticing my
appreciation of the farm, ‘‘is that none of them is registered; they just don’t
want to bother to secure their property.’’ My companion decided to pay a
friendly visit to the owner, an older man who came out of the house. He
described to the older man the advantage of having his property formalized
in a manner closely resembling the de Soto’s wisdom: ‘‘Once you register
your property, you can use it as collateral for a bank loan. Then you’ll be
able to expand your business and become rich!’’ The owner listened to the
ofﬁcer politely and then asked if we cared to come inside, a typical Kazakh
expression of hospitality, which in that particular context seemed to be a
convenient way of switching the topic from legalization and its prospects that
left little impact on him anyway.
What was striking about this incident is that there informality was treated
as an innocent act stemming from the ignorance of the individuals that the
state wanted to sort out for their own sake. In Almaty, on the other hand, the
same type of informality that had been tolerated for over a decade, in 2006,
was strongly deﬁned in the state discourse as the land invasion (samozahvat),
a label suggesting unlawful activity, criminalizing the informality to justify
eviction of the ‘‘social outsiders’’ without compensation. The meaning
attributed to the informality is thus not ﬁxed in time or within the same
political space and may vary from a somewhat neutral condition to a
‘‘normalized’’ state as shelters of poverty and to a wrongdoing. The deﬁnition
used in the state discourse at any given time indicates in what fashion the
government intends to enforce property rights, if at all. The dramatic eviction
attempt in Almaty is a reminder that although the state may tolerate
informality for a long time, allowing the growth and solidiﬁcation of squatter
neighborhoods, eventually, it comes to enforce property rights. And
‘‘strong property rights,’’ as Smart recaps the situation in China and Hong
Kong, ‘‘generally mean that those who have illegally encroached should
be removed’’ (Smart, 2008, p. 16). The questions then are when do the
governments tolerate the informality and why do they opt for the forced
eviction while both mechanisms of eviction and tenure legalization – which is
the case of Almaty in 2006 – are technically available to the state?
My interest in informal settlements is fairly recent. In 1999, I conducted ﬁeld
research for my Ph.D. thesis on rural to urban migration in Almaty. By that
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 19
time, Kazakhstan had received nine structural adjustment loans directed to
ﬁnance large-scale reforms, including the privatization of assets and
liabilities, deregulation of prices, and opening up the economy for foreign
investment. Those reforms, constituting shock therapy, were expected to
make post-Soviet transition to the free capitalist market a painful but quick
process. And yet, seven years after the start date in 1992, they brought
hardly any positive effect: despite all the efforts to jumpstart economic
development, the rural economy lay in ruins and the urban economy was in
crisis. William Easterly, who was involved in reforming Russia with the
World Bank, admitted belatedly that it was their biggest mistake to ﬁnance
those reforms that, in his account, ‘‘had joined the list of failed utopian
schemes’’ (2007, p. 61). They should have focused instead on the gradual
improvement of homegrown market initiatives, he came to argue, because
‘‘markets emerge in a spontaneous way y[based] on the bottom-up
development of local institutions and social norms’’ and not the top–down
reforms designed by the outsiders. One of those homegrown institutions that
emerged on the wave of market reforms in Almaty was the bazaar. By
building on preexisting economic forms, farmer’s and ﬂea markets
originating in the Soviet past, it transformed them beyond recognition.
In 1999, the Almaty bazaar was composed of a series of autonomous
marketplaces that involved roughly 100,000 entrepreneurs, concessionaires,
casual workers, and employees. Individual marketplaces were connected
through the chains of wholesale and retail transactions centering on a bazaar
complex in Zarya Vostoka, the largest unit among all. I used that
increasingly commercialized neighborhood at the outskirts of the city to
gather data on the urban migration that became a visible phenomenon at the
time of the post-Soviet reforms. The demand for cheap labor made Zarya
Vostoka the city’s major ‘‘entry point’’ for many villagers. In the late 1990s,
it included thousands of migrant workers employed in the increasingly
expanded margins of the bazaar business in addition to thousands of Almaty
residents who usually occupied more privileged economic positions
(Yessenova, 2006). A local economic boom helped to transform Zarya
Vostoka from a minor half-urban, half-rural settlement into a thriving
entrepreneurial community. Its inhabitants were among the ﬁrst to engage in
a cross-border trade; in addition, by converting spare rooms on their
properties into ‘‘beds per night,’’ they created rental facilities for the humble
workforce coming from the countryside. ‘‘Beds per night’’ worked well as the
temporary housing for the newly arriving villagers but it was scarce and
expensive to become a long-term solution. Those who sought a more stable
but affordable accommodation suitable for families had to look for it
elsewhere. The shortage of the existing local housing, most of which
concentrated in Zarya Vostoka, pushed migrant families to set up dwellings
on public wasteland extending between Zarya Vostoka and the city, which
was the most practical solution given the location’s proximity to their
workplace. Hence, 1993 is the year of birth of Shanyrak, one of the ﬁrst
informal settlements in Almaty that began as a tent-city (Litvinova, 2006).
By 2006, Kazakhstan was no longer a country with uncertain economic
prospects as it was in the 1990s. It was one of the ﬁrst former Soviet countries
to achieve a status of market economy and pay off the IMF loans. Such
dramatic improvement of the economy was based on the expansion of the
country’s hydrocarbon industry that attracted a respectable amount of FDI.
In addition, the government made an effort to diversify the economy and, in
the early 2000s, the growth of a nonoil sector was sustained at an impressive
rate of 8%. The positive economic trends inspired Kazakhstan’s leadership
to seek membership for their country among the 50 most competitive
economies in the world, an agenda that came to determine the state policy in
the following years. In order to align the country’s development with the
expectations of capitalist success, the state encouraged the national banks to
expand credit market. Consequently, it became easier in Kazakhstan to
obtain a bank loan or a mortgage than to renew a passport, which stimulated
business development and the construction boom in Almaty. The bazaar,
however, remained where it was before forming a gray area where assets were
not registered properly and most transactions were based on cash. By 2006, it
was neighbored by the extensive squatter settlements populated by its
workers and all those who could no longer afford to live in the city proper
In the following sections, I retrace the way the state managed its relation
with the squatters to argue that the politics on informality are shaped not by
the inability of the state to enforce its own rules, as de Soto suggests, but by
the broader social and economic developments of which the informality is
As such my argument is not new: a number of anthropologists have
made similar claims in reference to the interdependence of formal and
informal economies. Scholars of Latin America, for example, have shown in
their studies that states tolerate the informality, often ‘‘in direct contradiction
to their manifest law-enforcement duties,’’ because of their ‘‘dependence for
survival on the very sector of economic activity that habitually violates these
rules’’ (Centeno & Portes, 2006, p. 33). First, the informality provides
survival means to the most vulnerable populations that at the time of slow
economy helps to reduce the risks of political instability. In addition, it
renders competitive formal enterprises that through subcontracting are able
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 21
to acquire ‘‘cheap, informally produced goods and services’’ from locally
based companies and individuals (ibid.). As one UN-HABITAT expert said,
‘‘Just as slums and slum dwellers need cities to survive, so do cities need
slums to thrive’’ (Mumtaz, 2001). Finally, the informality persists because the
land occupied by the squatters often ‘‘has so little worth that no one bothers
to have or enforce property right to it’’ (Stillwaggon, 1998, p. 67, cited in
Davis, 2006, p. 39). All three explanations are relevant to the situation in
Almaty throughout the 1990s: (a) the land under the squatters, situated at the
very outskirts of the city, was not needed or commoditized, (b) the squatters
provided cheap services to the mainstream economy through employment at
the bazaar, which aided newly established ﬁrms elsewhere in Almaty, and (c)
the country was going through the massive restructuring of the economy
associated with a sharp decline in living standards among the entire
population. The combination of the economic hardship and new political
reality that provoked civil unrest, coup d’e
´tat, and interethnic conﬂict in
other parts of the postsocialist space prompted Kazakhstan’s leadership to
think of political stability as a primary goal.
A difference between my approach and previous work is that I wish to
reﬁne the claim to a connection between formal economy, state practice, and
squatters’ experiences. By the 2000s, the economic situation in Almaty
Fig. 3. Informal Housing in Shanyrak-2, July 2009. Photo by the author.
improved, stabilizing the political domain: an expanded middle class became
seen as a key supporter of the state and a major contributor to the economy
while the bazaar along with the squatters emerged in the state discourse as a
redundant business that not only embarrassed the city by having low outlay
designs but was also hurting urban ﬁrms. Most importantly, rapid economic
development and available credit created the need for the land occupied by
the squatter dwellings and their workplaces. In particular, this ‘‘need’’ was
generated by the rise of the speculative market populated by property
developers and individuals, whereas the informal settlements presented an
attractive opportunity for ‘‘primitive accumulation’’ or, as Harvey
rephrased Karl Marx, accumulation by dispossession that he argues ‘‘lies at
the core of the urban process under capitalism’’ (2006, p. 43).
In a nutshell, the eviction wars gathered momentum at the peak of the
economic boom when housing prices in Almaty were ridiculous and there
was practically no limit on credit available to property developers and
speculators whose activities drove the market, driving the poor away. The
state could deliver proper titles to the residents of Bakay and Shanyrak,
which would have helped to expand the city tax base and beneﬁted the
owners, many of whom are poor. Instead, driven by cost–beneﬁt calculations
rather than the ideas of social ethics, it transferred the rights to commercial
buyers willing to replace precarious squatter neighborhoods with a low
capacity for accumulation that, if legalized, would become a ﬁscal burden for
the city with a higher valued property. What Michel Foucault said about
neoliberalism – that under its regime it is the market that regulates the state
and not the other way around – is relevant here as it stresses that the
neoliberal agenda sidelines (if not excludes) the aim of social justice that
becomes subordinated to that of megasurplus (Lemke, 2001). This is
particularly true of the urban space. ‘‘The most important goal of urban
policy,’’ as Margit Mayer has argued, ‘‘has become to mobilize city space as
an arena for market-oriented economy growth’’ based on an uninterrupted
ﬂow of private investment (Mayer, 2007, p. 91). Likewise, in the postsocialist
milieu, the city has been placed at the forefront of the nations’ involvement in
the global economy and politics, urging the states, as Adrian Smith has put
it, ‘‘to create landscapes in the image of ‘successful’ cities elsewhere in the
world economy’’ to show the ‘‘success’’ of their own (2007, p. 205).
Kazakhstan, boasting the oil wealth, a sound ﬁnancial system, and economic
growth, is a prime example of this trend.
In this chapter, I discuss the informality as part and parcel of the state
practice, as an attempt to mobilize the urban space for achieving (or
demonstrating) capitalist success.
As opposed to what seems to be a
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 23
simplistic explanation that the state failed to deliver the titles to the poor
because the legalization campaign was captured by the powerful elites,
I intend to focus on the apparent contradiction between the intentions and
practices of the state in terms of another incongruity of the goals of free
(housing) market development, on the one hand, and equality, diversity and
welfare, on the other. Both state projects, on legalization and squatter
eviction, have failed to accomplish their missions as stated: the property
formalization campaign intended as a social policy, in the end, helped mostly
the wealthy and tax dodges to legalize their hidden assets and the squatters
remained where they used to be despite all the effort to enforce property
rights. When a global credit crunch brought down the Almaty housing
market in 2007, the state readmitted their neighborhoods as shelters of
poverty in need of care (but not of the state care), now being treated as
borrowed places, by Smart’s deﬁnition of squatters in Hong Kong – tolerated,
but only ‘‘for the time being’’ with no promise of subsequent legalization
(2001, p. 31).
I will demonstrate that the speculative boom in Almaty – a key reason
behind the attempted dispossession of the squatters – originated in the state
policy on promoting market-based housing solutions that contrary to an
anticipated expansion of home ownership through the use of the credit
system fueled the steep housing price appreciation in 2003, leading to the
property shortage by 2005 and eventual collapse of the real estate market in
2007. I will argue that both the attempt to enforce property rights by
eradicating the squatters as well as its failure have been linked to this
political formatting of the housing market that proved to be inadequate in
the face of challenges posed by the market as well as for achieving better
welfare and social justice.
Following in the footsteps of his political father President Nazarbaev who
turned Astana into the nation’s capital, Imangali Tasmagambetov thought
of himself as a grand architect when he was appointed an akim (mayor) of
Almaty in 2005. On the June 30, 2006, his ofﬁce informed the press that he
desired to reorganize the city plan. Most business activities have been
concentrated in a central part of Almaty now hosting many foreign and
national ﬁrms and surrounded by extensive clusters of apartment blocks,
schools, and other public facilities or microrayons (microdistricts). This
centralized urban planning model originating in the Soviet past presumably
inhibited economic development of the city and the intention was to
reorganize it according to a more modern ‘‘polycentric’’ concept that would
help to create new business areas elsewhere, decongesting the city center. By
2012, the akim wanted to replace 12 microrayons in the southwestern part of
the city, populated by hundreds of thousands of people, with the newly
designed residential-cum-business areas (Dzhalilova, 2006). The idea of such
massive urban reconstruction, it was explained to the media, had to do with
the increased demand for housing and business facilities in Almaty, a fast
growing city with a diverse and dynamic economy.
In 2006, at the time of the event, the city’s real estate market was about to
reach a historic high: during the ﬁve previous years, prices went up 14 times
from USD 250/m
in 2002 to 3,600/m
in 2006, continuing to grow in 2007.
Between 2002 and 2007, banks delivered USD 6 billion to ﬁnance
construction and 4.5 billion to ﬁnance mortgages that together amounted
to more investment than that went in manufacturing and agriculture
combined. Over one-third (35%) of this total loan volume was invested in
individual and commercial property in Almaty, which drove up the cost of
housing at an unprecedented rate (Table 1). And it seemed in those days that
there were no limits on borrowing. The authors in social analysis of housing
markets have argued about ‘‘the dual nature of housing’’ as ‘‘both a
commodity and an investment good,’’ whereas it is usually the ‘‘investment
potential’’ that generates steep price rises (Smith, Nuro, & Hazel, 2006; p. 92).
This is what the expanded possibilities of debt-ﬁnancing that ‘‘unlocked dead
capital’’ of housing, following de Soto, have created in Almaty: ﬁrms and
individuals sought mortgages to pay for secondary and tertiary residencies in
anticipation of solid dividends in the future; over 50% of the Almaty housing
Table 1. Financing of Construction and Mortgages and Housing
Pricing in Central Almaty.
Year Credit (Billion Tenge) Housing (USD/m
2002 43 200
2003 32 500
2004 84 1,000
2005 154 2,000
2006 346 4,000
2007 452 6,000
The expansion of the credit market in construction and mortgages closely correlates with the
dynamics of real estate prices in Almaty.
Source: Shibutov (2007, p. 3).
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 25
market was used as an investment instrument (Shodyrov, 2006, p. 57). The
outcome of this rapidly emerged dual structural design of housing not only as
a ‘‘place to live,’’ which it was before, but also as a ‘‘place to invest’’ was the
property shortage that called for a grand architectural solution, as outlined
Initially, capital investment was directed to central Almaty and adjacent
areas, the most lucrative locations now featuring new condominiums,
shopping malls, recreational facilities, and business towers. But soon
property developers began looking for opportunities in the outlying areas
and the city administration wanted to act decisively. Already in 2003, the city
boundary was moved further southwest, incorporating Zarya Vostoka and
the recently emerged informal settlements. The latter areas lacked paved
roads, piped water, and sewage systems. Between 2003 and 2006, the city
invested USD 7.5 million in extending major roads and pipes to connect these
newly incorporated areas to the urban networks with a goal of stimulating
business and the ﬂow of investment (Karadzhaeva, 2006, p. 69). As the akim
proudly pointed it out to the press, this was done to make those areas ‘‘more
attractive to prospective investors’’ (Dzhalilova, 2006). Not a single time did
he mention Shanyrak or other informal settlements, occupying those areas,
and journalists correctly guessed that the project on urban reconstruction
would most likely begin with them. In fact, the operation on their demolition
had already been set in motion.
Spontaneous construction was not unknown during the Soviet period;
however, it is only with the post-Soviet liberalization of political and
economic regimes, commonly associated with the uplifting of restrictions on
population movement and business activity but also eliminating thousands
of jobs in rural areas and industrial company towns, which magniﬁed the
housing shortage in the city that it took place on a large scale. The city
administration was aware of the on-going developments; but the state failed
to introduce a legal framework that would regulate what was later deﬁned as
‘‘land invasion.’’ Until 2003, the territory occupied by squatters was located
just outside the Almaty jurisdiction and, technically, outside the city’s
responsibility, which probably contributed to such inaction. Either way, the
state authorities did not think that intervention would be a smart choice at
the time of society’s deep dissatisfaction with poverty and unemployment.
Consequently, the spontaneous construction on public wasteland came to be
treated as a low-cost remedy versus the politicization of the most desperate
masses. As it transpired later, however, the state not only tolerated squatters
but also went on to acknowledge the rights of many. In 2006, 80% of
Shanyrak and Bakay residents, including those who arrived between 1991
and 1995, were in possession of titles granted by the state on the basis of A
Law on Land Allocation for Gardening and Individual Construction in
Districts Bordering the City that was issued in 1990, that is, during the Soviet
Walking door to door in April and May, inspectors expressed serious
doubts about those titles. Yet, the same individuals also held documents
that conﬁrmed those titles in 2001, and some of those documents were
signed by the same bureaucrats who came with the inspection (PDC, 2006).
As embarrassing as it was, they nevertheless turned down the paperwork
with their autographs on the grounds of ‘‘remoteness of the date of issue’’
For a number of years, those titles, most of which were sealed with tears
and bribes, provided squatter occupants with some sense of security of their
habitation. They erected permanent structures replacing tents, and gave
beautiful names to their settlements, such as Ulzhan and Aigerim, which are
Kazakh female names, and, of course, Shanyrak, which they regarded as
microrayons just like regular residential areas to which they served as
extensions. By 2006, when a modest ﬂat in Almaty could be sold for USD
200,000, informal settlements formed an 800 ha belt along the southwestern
city boundary that was populated by 75,000 inhabitants, most of whom were
casual laborers and small entrepreneurs struggling to make the ends meet.
Their simple housing ‘‘did not help to decorate the city gates,’’ as one
journalist put it, but, on the other hand, squatters ‘‘did not create any
problem for the city either’’ until the city ‘‘invaded their territory’’ (Grishin,
2006). Tasmagambetov tried to get rid of Shanyrak in the fall of 2005, just
before the presidential elections in Kazakhstan. In response, over 1,000
Shanyrak residents went on a protest march on the 18th of September
galvanizing public attention, which prompted the akim to change his tactics:
he convinced the protesters that it was a ‘‘preventive’’ action against the
incoming individuals, promising that, if they ‘‘vote right,’’ his administration
would help them to formalize their property. The elections left President
Nazarbaev in his seat, and, in April 2006, the city began a new wave of
assaults, disregarding earlier promises. The ﬁrst casualty was Aigerim that
lost 18 houses (ibid., 2006). The others took it as a warning.
Residents of Bakay were more worried than the others because their
settlement was located in an area between the city center and the airport that
became viewed as commercially most valuable in the past several years. In
early June 2006, the court ruled that 26 dwellings in Bakay were built illegally
and should be demolished, which caused another mass protest.
dozens of women from Bakay went on a hunger strike. In response, the
Parliament set up a commission in attempt to ﬁnd an acceptable solution.
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 27
They extracted a promise from the city administration that no measures
would be taken against Bakay or any other squatter settlement while the
commission was looking for an alternative solution. Residents engaged with
the commission proposing that, if their property was formalized in the
process of the anticipated legalization campaign, they would pay for the
missing local infrastructure, canalization, water pipes, and sidewalks,
something that used to displease the city authorities. Alternatively, if the
land they occupied was indeed needed for other purposes, as the city
administration claimed on other occasions, they would accept compensation,
land plots, or economy housing elsewhere in Almaty.
This dialogue was
suddenly interrupted by the demolition of 350 houses in Bakay on June 7,
2006 (Morzaeva, 2006a). Ambushed victims compared this action to Hitler’s
attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 in violation of a peace treaty. They
organized a mass hunger strike and signed a petition to the President in
which they deﬁned the state’s action as a crime, demanding the resignation of
akim. While the President remained completely disengaged, on July 14, 2006,
the city launched an attack on Shanyrak, leaving 1 dead, 12 wounded among
the residents, and 15 injured among the police. Neither the city administra-
tion nor police claimed responsibility for ordering it.
By then, the victims of Bakay and Shanyrak were no longer alone in their
protests against the unlawful actions of the state. Activists from different
political parties and movements set up organizations whose agenda was the
protection of citizens’ property rights. Opposition prodemocratic parties and
their supporters used their platforms for public forums condemning the state
and the motivations behind forced eviction. Bulat Abilov, one of the most
vocal opponents of the existing political regime, set the tone of public debate:
In his public statement, he [the akim] labeled them [squatters] as ‘‘social outsiders’’ who
would ‘‘demand roads, schools, and hospitals’’ [if their property is legalized]. Why not?
Is it a crime? yThousands of people live in Shanyrak yin the conditions inhumane for
the 21st century, inhumane for a country like Kazakhstan, which aims to be on the list of
50 most competitive economies in the world yThere is no electricity, heat, gas, or
roads. yThey have to be compensated not only for the loss of their property but also
for coping with such conditions for this long.’’ (2006).
Even the public that was usually politically inactive became alerted, siding
with the squatters. Squatter eviction helped to reveal that state intervention
in property rights was not only the problem of the poor informals. As the
president of a newly established foundation ‘‘Zashiti svoy dom’’ (‘‘Defend
Your Home’’) said, expressing the mood of the day: ‘‘Today, not only the
residents of Bakay, anyone can lose their home at any time and in any part
of the city. If somebody with big money is attracted to some land [holding],
the state would claim it under the eminent domain [gosudarstvenniye
nuzhdy]’’ (Aspandiyarova, 2006).
The concept of eminent domain denotes the power of the state to
appropriate property for public use, such as highways, power lines, or
military installations. When the construction boom hit Almaty, a number of
old and odd neighborhoods were demolished under its pretext and replaced
by commercial property such as shopping malls, hotels, business centers, as
well as condominiums. The state justiﬁed the improper intervention into
property rights on the grounds that it helped to gentrify and upgrade the
city, create jobs, and increase property value and tax revenues, contributing
to business and economic development, a top priority on the state agenda.
This practice also helped the convergence of this ofﬁcial agenda of the state
and a personal agenda of bureaucrats seeking illicit ﬁnancial reward. The
state would claim the land under eminent domain and sell it to the ﬁrst
buyer at a low price who would sell it at a market price to the second. The
amount from the initial transaction would go to the state account, making it
look legitimate and complete, while the bureaucrats would get a respectable
kickback from the second transaction. In 2006, hundreds of owners whose
property was appropriated by the state ﬁled law suits trying to get what
they believed would be fair compensation (Tunik, 2007). In 2007, the
Constitutional Council issued a bill specifying that the state can claim
property only when this land is needed for noncommercial public purposes,
thus taking away an important source of bureaucrats’ personal enrichment.
In 2006, this was yet to happen, and there would be no bill to protect the
most vulnerable population in Almaty: squatters from dispossession.
In the course of the subsequent public investigation, it was revealed that,
by the time of eviction in June 2006, the land under Bakay had already been
sold to Investgroup Ltd., a company with many subsidiaries, and Shanyrak
that was inhabited by hundreds of families had been sold in 2005 to eight
anonymous buyers (Gubaydulin, 2008;PDC, 2006). After all it was not a
coincidence that the issue of the law On Amnesty and forced eviction with
demolition took place at the same time: the decision about the eviction was
made long before the court ruled on the case and the police were given
orders. The state wanted to execute the last step in a sequence – to remove
the inhabitants of informal settlements from the scene so that the new
owners could take possession of their property and the previous ones would
no longer be able to build cases for the upcoming legalization.
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 29
An amnesty program that allows legalizing hidden assets and ﬂight capital is
a recognized ﬁscal practice that was used at different times and on different
scales in many countries around the world. It is intended to raise short-term
tax revenue, stimulate the repatriation of capital, and transfer assets from
the ‘‘underground’’ economy as a means of expanding the tax base in the
future. The state grants a speciﬁc grace period under various conditions to
tax dodgers and all those who ﬁnd themselves in a precarious situation as a
result of legal disruptions caused by a major shift in the tax system or the
Historically, amnesty programs delivered varied out-
comes, but even those regarded as the most successful failed to achieve their
individual goals in terms of the revenue collection and the long-term impact
on the tax base. The relatively low success rates of these programs are
attributed to the controversial message that those very programs, offering
pardon to tax evaders, sent to the public and the inability of the state to
properly address the problems that generated hidden assets or the capital
outside the legal framework in the ﬁrst place. Despite the obvious
shortcomings, however, the states still use this measure, voluntary and
indiscriminative, often as the last resort in order to reduce the administrative
cost of enforced tax extraction, hoping to improve compliance in the future
(Keller, 2004;Uchitelle, 1989).
In Kazakhstan, the amnesty program was implemented for the ﬁrst time in
2001. Under the condition of complete anonymity, citizens and companies
were invited to deposit unreported funds into accounts in national banks.
The state set high expectations for that campaign, hoping to transfer billions
of dollars circulating within the ‘‘shadow’’ economy into the legal sphere.
However, only USD 480 million was reported. For the 2006 amnesty, the
state did not set any monetary target; instead, it emphasized social and ﬁscal
impacts of the program that was intended to (a) expand the national tax
base, (b) stimulate rural markets, and (c) uplift the newly urban poor, that is,
squatters. Since not only the urban poor and the farmers were invited to
formalize their property but any citizen or a ﬁrm, the overall goal of the
program was to contribute to ‘‘the building of a transparent economy’’ in the
In Almaty, potential claimants of the noncommercial real estate
property included three categories: (a) squatters occupying improperly
registered land holdings and dwellings, (b) residents holding legal land plots
on which they built chalets (dachas) without documenting such property
development, and (c) recently constructed estates belonging to, as the Chief
of Kazakhstan’s Journalist Union put it, ‘‘dispossessed ministers and other
bureaucrats’’ that at the time of real estate boom could be sold for a million
dollars each (Latysheva, 2007).
The latter have been concentrated on the territory of Medeo National
Park located to the southeast of central Almaty. During the Soviet period,
this large mountainous area, home to Tiyan-Shan pine trees, old apple
gardens that gave the name to the city, and rare animal species, such as snow
leopards, was made into a recreational zone, including hiking trails and
public facilities – summer camps for children and sanatoriums for families.
In the aftermath of socialism, most of those facilities were privatized and
transformed into private residencies. Over the time, new estates were built,
transforming large portions of the national park into upscale suburbs away
from the city pollution and the public eye. The status of the three- to four-
storey mansions around the national park has always been questionable,
causing public concern; but, as one of the public activists pointed out
ironically after the events in Bakay and Shanyrak, ‘‘nobody was evicted’’
there (ibid.). The public demanded investigation to which the akim who
owns a four-storey home in that same area replied that the occupancy
around Medeo was ‘‘a long story’’ and that they would not start the case in
order to avoid what could potentially become a series of ‘‘complicated legal
proceedings’’ (Kovtunskiy, 2006).
The squatters claimed by the ‘‘newly rich’’ and the ‘‘newly poor’’ became
the highlights of the nation-wide legalization campaign. The initial time
frame for real estate was nine months from the day of issue (July 3, 2006–
April 1, 2007) but then it was extended for another four months, until
August 1, 2007. Similar to the 2001 campaign, the law guaranteed complete
anonymity and conﬁdentiality of all cases. This time, however, claimants
were charged a tax amounting to 10% of the value of the property they were
seeking to legalize, whereas the property value was to be determined by the
claimants themselves. The media reported that the owners of small chalets
and garages spontaneously came up with a ‘‘standard’’ value of KZT500
(USD 4.10). Although it has been stated in the law that the application
would be returned to the claimant in case of ‘‘incorrect counting of a duty
amount,’’ it was quite possible that the owners of multistory mansions
declared 1% of their property value. The campaign was deemed to be
inclusive; however, it has been outlined in the Law that ‘‘the property the
rights to which are litigated in the court’’ was not eligible for the
legalization. In July 2006, that is, in the immediate aftermath of the attack
on Shanyrak, the court satisﬁed legal claims of a small group of Shanyrak
residents whose housing was previously subject to demolition. However, it
retained thousands of other cases that the city ﬁled against squatter
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 31
residents just before the campaign (Morzaeva, 2006b). They could still
apply; but the decision-making on legalization was in the hands of a
designated commission formed within the city or district akimat, that is, the
same bodies that harassed the squatters in the ﬁrst place.
In the meantime, the residents of Bakay and Shanyrak stayed by their
destroyed houses, safeguarding their belongings, along with the police that
patrolled the area making sure that no dwellings were rebuilt. Many
residents submitted applications for legalization, hoping for the best.
According to the Law, applications were to be processed within 15 working
days; but the commission held their documents for months (in some cases,
8–10 months). In the fall of 2006, still expecting to hear from the court or the
commission concerning their cases, squatters were permitted to stay until
spring. But on June 1, 2007, 200 hundred families in Bakay got eviction
notices delivered by city ofﬁcials arriving with bulldozers. No dwelling was
demolished on that day, but the ofﬁcials assured them that it was just a
matter of time because the land they occupied had long been sold
(Gubaydulin, 2008). By then, the commission had refused 10,000
claims made by the residents of informal settlements. Subsequently, the
court overruled the decisions in 12 cases from Shanyrak in favor of the
claimants, but it happened after the legalization campaign had ended
(Kurmanov, 2008). Initially, the fact that the residents of Bakay, Shanyrak,
and other informal settlements were consistently denied the possibility to
formalize their property rights was linked to the city authorities who were
accused of manipulating and abusing the law; however, in the course of the
process, it transpired that it had been a coordinated effort involving
members of the national government that drafted that very law. Public
advocates, providing legal support to the residents of informal settlements,
got hold of a letter signed by the Deputy Minister of Justice on October 5,
2006. Written as a reference guide to the Law on Amnesty, the letter laid it
bare that ‘‘spontaneous construction and mass land invasion must not be
allowed. [Therefore] such property may not be legalized’’ (ibid.). The
publication of this letter provoked yet another series of mass protests but it
was too late.
In December 2007, the state declared the amnesty program, which
involved 10% of the total population according to the ofﬁcial account, an
overwhelming success. The value of legalized assets was reported as
KZT844.7 billion (USD 6.8 billion), an amount standing for 8.7% of the
national GDP. The opposition parties, on the other hand, deﬁned the
campaign as a large-scale money laundry operation since, as they argued,
most of the legalized property did not include ‘‘the agricultural machinery’’
and dwellings of regular citizens, as the state tried to present it (Table 2), but
cash (USD 4.3 billion), 90% of which came from Almaty, Astana, and
foreign countries (Kesher, 2007). Even before the outcomes were made
available to the public, the campaign provoked a serious critique in the
Parliament: ‘‘Legalization has been conducted for the sake of legalization,’’
said one of the members, intending ‘‘to free all types of ﬁgures from the
responsibility for committed crimes and offences.’’ ‘‘This law was conceived
with an honorable goal in mind,’’ commented another member, ‘‘to help
villagers who built homes in the city or in the country yHowever, it all
came down to the law defending the rights of corrupters’’ (Itegulov, 2007).
Likewise, economists expressed their skepticism about the economic impact
of the campaign. In their opinion, the transfer of cash to the legal sphere, as
opposed to the means of production, can only create groups of legitimate
millionaires and billionaires in one day and not much else.
The controversy surrounding the legalization campaign that was
conducted behind the closed doors of state ofﬁces as opposed to being
administered by the audit ﬁrms that could produce more impartial and
professionally competent results (see Table 3)
would have been debated
for a long time after it was over; however, soon after the nation became
preoccupied with a new set of pressing issues caused by the global credit
crunch and economic recession that hit the country in the fall 2007, turning
the construction boom into a bust, and diluting public attention from the
old problems and the poor squatters.
Table 2. Nationwide Legalized Assets (KZT 1 ¼USD 125).
Type of Property Value (KZT, Billions) Value (USD, Billions)
Real estate 236.2 1.89
Liquid cash 538.4 4.3
Shares and securities 29.5 0.24
Agricultural machinery 11.2 0.09
Transport 5.1 0.04
Real estate abroad 7.2 0.06
Missing information 17.1 0.14
Total legalized 844.7 6.76
Source: Interview with Orazaly Sabden, Director of the Institute of Economics under the
Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Nalogi i ﬁnancy, 2007, pp.
2–4). There is still missing information in the breakdown of the legalized assets by categories,
yet, even that gap would not mask the fact that a disproportionally large share of the legalized
assets was liquid cash.
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 33
CREDIT CRUNCH AND ITS AFTERMATH
While cautious about borrowing from the Breton Woods Institutions, the
government of Kazakhstan favored commercial credits. Political stability,
proved hydrocarbon reserves, and a well-crafted banking system – the ‘‘jewel’’
of the national economy – helped to raise Kazakhstan’s credit rating
(Pomfret, 2008, p. 3). As one commentator said, ‘‘Kazakhstan became the
darling of the international markets’’ in the past decade (Kielmas, 2008, p. 11).
Based on conservative estimates, by 2007, the foreign debt of Kazakhstan’s
banks was USD 40 billion (otherwise, USD 45 billion). Most of this foreign
borrowing went to ﬁnance business centers and luxury condominiums in
central Almaty and not to manufacturing and agriculture as anticipated
initially. In the summer of 2006, the government and the National bank
expressed concerns with the growing foreign debt that doubled in just one
year, disallowing the banks to uptake the most risky short-term loans. But it
was too late for an honest state intervention that could provoke sharp decline
in construction and housing markets.
The mortgage boom in Kazakhstan began as a social policy intended to
promote home ownership. In the early 2000, the state signed a bill on home
ﬁnancing, and, in 2006, began promoting cooperative building or share-
holder construction (dolevoye stroitel’stvo). The latter was expected to reduce
the cost of new homes by means of pooling resources of developers and their
buyers (‘‘shareholders’’) who by investing their funds in construction were
able to buy condominiums at the prices lower than the current market value.
The same measure was expected to control housing prices that had gone
through the roof by then. The outcome was just the opposite: the
cooperative building indeed stimulated the growth rate of the new housing
construction that increased by 46.4% in the same year. At the same time,
though, it boosted speculation that overheated the market: if, in 2005, the
cost of square meter increased by 44% in relation to the previous year, it
Table 3. Legalized Real Estate Property (KZT 1 ¼USD 125).
Legalized Value (USD) Volume (Units) Value/Unit (USD)
Almaty 12,000,000 More than 22,000 545.45
Outside Almaty 1,877,640,000 1,464,000 1,282.54
Total 1,889,640,000 1,486,000 1,272.63
Source: Interview with Orazaly Sabden, Director of the Institute of Economics under the Ministry
of Education and Science of the Republic of Kazakhstan (Nalogi i ﬁnancy, 2007, pp. 2–4).
jumped up by 67–71.5% in 2006 (Dubyanski, 2007). By mid-2006, 95% of
all housing transactions were debt-ﬁnanced under 15–20% interest rate
(Shodyrov, 2006, p. 57). At the price of USD 3,000–4,000/m
, an average
monthly payment for a modest ﬂat in Almaty was USD 1,000 and higher,
which made home ownership unaffordable for the ﬁrst-time buyers among
the Almaty middle class, who had an average monthly income of USD
400–500. According to real estate agencies, only 10–15% of all ﬂats and
condominiums bought within several years did not change owners by 2007;
the rest were resold two to three times. Evidently, access to credit did not
work as a social policy; instead, it helped to blow the housing bubble and
created the housing shortage. By 2007, many ﬂats in the newly built
multistory condominiums stayed empty, giving a clear sign to local
observers that the bubble was about to burst, the only remaining question
being when it would happen (Nevolin, 2007).
In April 2007, after New Century Financial (a US ﬁnancial giant
specializing in subprime mortgages that sold many of its debts to other
banks) had ﬁled for bankruptcy protection, Almaty’s real estate market fell
by 40%, triggering a dramatic slowdown. In the next couple of months,
banks increased interest rates, which practically stopped sales and construc-
tion. In the summer of 2007, most real estate ﬁrms and developers went
under and thousands of agents and construction workers were laid off. That
summer, the ‘‘shareholders,’’ whose borrowings were frozen in dead assets,
went on public protest, thus replacing squatters from Shanyrak and Bakay
who had marched the streets in the previous year. In the fall of 2007, the
government used USD 4 billion to bail out the construction projects that
would otherwise have been abandoned left half-ﬁnished, and it implemented
ﬁscal and political measures to control the interest rates (Pomfret, 2008,
pp. 4–5). At the same time, international rating agencies lowered the
creditworthiness of Kazakhstan, placing the country on the list of ‘‘high
caution’’ economies (decline in oil and metal prices, Kazakhstan’s major
export commodities, contributed to that as well), which generated a major
liquidity shortage at the banks (Muzalevsky, 2009, p. 19;Pomfret, 2008,
pp. 4–5). By the end of 2008, the government had issued a USD 15 billion
rescue package to bail out the banks that were due to repay short-term loans
in order to avert a possible collapse of the entire ﬁnancial sector, which
had shrunk by 70% (Muzalevsky, 2009, p. 20). This measure was shortly
followed by a drastic cutback in the public sector that reduced wages by
15–20%. The global credit crunch thus bore direct implications not only on
speculators and bankers but the entire society, including the squatters who,
as a matter of fact, regained some degree of security of occupancy.
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 35
In October 2007, the court closed the Shanyrak case by sentencing 23 men
involved in the attack on the police, having 1 charged with the murder and
the others with the organization of mass disturbances (4 men among them
were given prison sentences). Earlier, two police ofﬁcers who participated in
the attack had resigned while others stated that if they were ordered to evict
people from their homes again, they would leave law enforcement as well.
The squatters were supposed to be ﬁnally evicted in the summer of 2007;
however, under the pressure of the new problems in the mainstream
economy, they simply fell out of focus. The recession seriously slowed down
the process of property development, so that even unoccupied land that had
been (re)sold recently showed no signs of investment-based improvement.
And the grandiose plan for the city reorganization that was presented to the
public in the summer of 2006 was abandoned, if not completely forgotten.
Left alone, the squatters quietly prepared their dwellings for the coming
winter. In October 2008, after the property market had collapsed, Ahmetjan
Esimov, the newly appointed akim of Almaty, founded a public charity
foundation ‘‘Zhana Alatau’’ (‘‘New Alatau’’). The sole mission of this
foundation, it has been announced, is fundraising for the development
of public infrastructure and social services in the Alatau district in Almaty –
the one including Shanyrak, Bakay, and other self-built microrayons.
The governing board of the foundation included representatives from the
business community, parliament members, and prominent ﬁgures from
the cultural elite. ‘‘I think, the most important thing,’’ the akim said at the
inauguration ceremony, thanking the donors, ‘‘is to be a co-participant in
the development of our beloved city’’ (Kudabayeva, 2008). Nothing was
said at the ceremony or otherwise about what might happen to the legal
status of the informal settlements, that is, whether the state would introduce
a regulatory framework creating a public–private partnership, formalize
their inhabitants’ rights to land and dwellings, or resettle them elsewhere
(Fig. 4). After all, the squatters remained where they were and as they were
before – unregulated – but, under the circumstances of the ﬁnancial crisis and
economic recession, normalized as the borrowed places whereas ‘‘illegalities
are accepted and restrained’’ but only ‘‘for the time being,’’ that is, until the
next construction boom (Smart, 2001).
Capitalism is in crisis outside the West,’’ de Soto sums up poignantly,
‘‘because developing and former communist nations have been unable to
‘globalize’ capital within their own countries.’’ This takes him to an even
more dismal note: ‘‘they still linger at the periphery of the capitalist game.
They have no stake in it’’ (de Soto, 2000, p. 211). The cascading events that
recently paralyzed the ﬁnancial systems across the world have shown that
the ‘‘developing and former communist nations’’ managed to ‘‘globalize’’
their capital more than they now wish they did, and much more than de
Soto believed they were capable of. By 2007, Kazakhstan accumulated total
USD 48.4 billion in foreign reserves, USD 27.4 billion of which belonged to
the National Oil Fund (Economist, 2008b). The entire national savings thus,
most of which were generated by the export of nonrenewable natural
resources, exceeded foreign liabilities of the country’s banks (USD 40/45
billions), most of which went to ﬁnance speculative property transactions in
Almaty and Astana, only by roughly 10%. The current global credit crisis
might become yet another demonstration that deregulated markets work for
some economies, but not for all. de Soto’s wisdom that the nations of the
global South – now dealing with a serious liquidity shortage and enormous
foreign debts accumulated by means of unrestrained borrowing by
commercial banks – ‘‘are quite aware that they still linger at the periphery’’
is more relevant to this debt situation that was created as part of the
‘‘capitalist game.’’ The credit-giving economies of the global North, on the
other hand, despite all the problems the deregulation generated for them,
have great chances to emerge as the winners from the ‘‘ﬁnancial Katrina’’
Fig. 4. The Same Street in Shanyrak, seen in Fig. 2 in July 2009. Photo by the
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 37
similarly to the Asian crisis of 1997–1998 that was followed by what Wade
and Veneroso captured as the ‘‘biggest peacetime transfer of assets from
domestic to foreign owners,’’ that is, Western and Japanese ﬁrms. ‘‘In a
depression, assets return to their rightful owners,’’ as the phrase attributed
to Andrew Mellon goes (Wade & Veneroso, 1998, p. 18).
Some interesting questions here are: who are the ‘‘rightful owners’’ in case
of informal settlements and did they claim their assets at the time of
economic recession? In this chapter, I identiﬁed major periods in the post-
Soviet informality shaped by the complex relationship between the state, the
market, and the squatters. Those periods closely correspond to the social
and spatial dynamics in Hong Kong that Smart has deﬁned as ‘‘toleration,’’
‘‘repression,’’ and ‘‘exclusion’’ (Smart, 2001). From 1991 to 2002, that is,
during the time of economic crisis and slow recovery in Kazakhstan, the
informality was of no particular concern to the state. The state tolerated
informal settlements by denial, not of their rights, but their very existence. It
was the squatters who came forward trying to negotiate their situation with
the state on an individual basis, but their numerous requests did not prompt
the state to develop a regulatory framework that would acknowledge the
fast growing self-built settlements and put their development under control.
By 2003, when the construction boom took shape and the real estate market
was blown up, this period ended replaced with repression. After a decade of
nonrecognition of squatters as a mass phenomenon, the state deﬁned them
as ‘‘land encroachers on public property,’’ which was an ‘‘ex post facto
political conclusion’’ delivered to justify the forced eviction in 2006 (Smart
& Tang, 2005, p. 82). The violent operation that failed to clear the land from
squatter dwellings was followed by a short period of exclusion when the
court was sorting out thousands of individual cases, declining some and
ruling in favor of others, which helped some families but did not solve the
predicament of informality. Finally, when the construction and real estate
markets collapsed in 2007, the state ‘‘normalized’’ the informality of
squatters’ settlements without any attempt of enforcing property rights or
adopting a policy that would regulate their development.
This latest period of tolerance of informality – ‘‘tolerance’’ in the sense
that the state no longer tries to evict squatters – has been motivated by the
same factors that shaped the earlier period of tolerance by denial, including
the low rate of property development and fear of radicalization of the
society, experiencing serious economic pressures after several years of steady
improvement. ‘‘Tolerance’’ in the sense that the state has not come forward
to provide assistance to the squatters in formalizing their property rights is
most likely motivated by the fact that the public land they occupy came to
be treated as a land ‘‘in reserve’’ that can be reclaimed in the future, as
needed. The informality thus has ﬁgured in state practice as a temporary
social remedy, a self-help arrangement tolerated during economic calamity,
but not legalized, that is, open for criminalization at the time of market
growth and increased competition. Some anthropologists have argued that
the rights formalization is not a necessary condition for the tenure security
in informal settlements because their inhabitants may already possess a
greater degree of security stemming from informal arrangements among
them as well as between them and the state. Yet, in urban areas with volatile
real estate markets and the cyclical nature of property development,
ambiguous rights seem to bear serious consequences for the squatters. Thus,
the core issue that the inhabitants of Bakay and Shanyrak tried to push
during the eviction wars in Almaty involved the meaning of their taking over
the public land that from their standpoint was a legitimate act grounded in
social justice. When the court satisﬁed several dozen of their claims (out of
thousands) in the aftermath of the legalization campaign, which did not
formalize their rights to property, but simply attested to the legitimacy of
their occupancy, they took it as an important victory deﬁning them not as
criminals, but citizens and rightful owners. This is why I would argue that
the period of the state’s tolerance of informality – or the downtime, when
squatters feel relatively secure and are even being taken care of in some
humanitarian sense and, for this reason, less likely to mobilize for a
collective action – is crucial for addressing their legal claims, something that
would inevitably become an acute matter in the future, once the country
recovers from the economic downturn and the state would no longer be held
political hostage of the market.
It has been established, however, that legality, no matter how much it is
desired, has negative consequences for the poor. Market value of the
legalized assets, land in particular, rises sharply, attracting speculators and
developers who push the original owners out. Informality, on the other
hand, discourages speculative transactions, helping to keep property value
low and assets intact. In addition, there is no evidence that the formalization
of rights per se opens the way to prosperity for poor inhabitants of urban
slums and members of rural communities, as de Soto and others suggest.
Even in Peru, a country central to de Soto’s research, the impact of the rural
titling program on the livelihoods of poor farmers has been reported as
‘‘largely inconclusive’’ and the legalization alone proved to be an insufﬁcient
measure. Legality did not give the poor farmers access to long-term credit,
as was anticipated, and contrary to the expected increase in revenues, it hurt
their ‘‘competitiveness in the land market,’’ threatening to ‘‘even force them
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 39
out of the agricultural sector’’ (Fort, 2008, pp. 1, 21) – into urban slums, one
might add. In the city, access to credit is easier, and yet, by itself, legality
does not bring capital investment to the urban poor either. Commercial
banks and ﬁnancial corporations are reluctant to lend to them because of
high risks of bankruptcy and foreclosure (unless banks are backed up with
state subsidies). At the same time, there is not much demand for credit
among the poor either. As Mitchell said: ‘‘all owners would prefer their
homes to be legal, but not because they plan to use them as collateral’’
(Mitchell, 2004, p. 12). Recapturing narratives of her informants in Mexico
City, Varley suggests that ‘‘accounts of legalization have to take on board
what housing means to people’’ who built homes at great odds and ‘‘great
cost to themselves.’’ She explains:
The cost is ﬁnancial, physical and emotional, a product of ‘‘suffering’’ yentailed in
building from scratch in an unserviced area remote from public transport, jobs, markets,
schools and other amenities. In these circumstances, housing means more to people than
shelter or an economic asset. It has become part of their life story – and not only their
own story, but the story of their family (2002, pp. 457–458).
‘‘Having something to leave to the children,’’ she continues, ‘‘is the most
common response residents give when asked why they were prepared to build
a home in an illegal, unserviced settlement’’ (ibid.). And, as the eviction wars
in Almaty and elsewhere have showed, they are also prepared to defend their
homes: in Shanyrak, they were ready to give up their lives, one of the women
said, in order to claim the land for their children. The desire for formal titles
among the poor squatters thus has nothing to do with the formula
‘‘property–collateral–credit–increased income’’ upon which many policy
advisors and politicians build their reasoning and decision-making these
days. For them, formal titles ‘‘represent ypublic recognition of their
achievements in housing their family and building a home’’ (ibid.). Such
inadequate understanding of people in informal settlements has inhibited the
success, especially in terms of long-term effects, of the regularization efforts
One possibility to recognize a digniﬁed effort of low-income squatters
is to transform urban slums into public housing. But, as Davis correctly
noted in The Planet of Slums, ‘‘the idea of an interventionist state strongly
committed to social housing and job development seems either a
hallucination or a bad joke’’ in the world where social ills are increasingly
treated with market-based solutions (2006, p. 62). The latter solutions,
however, do not reward but exploit what has been formally acknowledged
by the World Bank as ‘‘the ability, the courage, and the capacity for
self-help of slum people’’ (ibid., 72): if they managed to survive without any
government support, the logic of development goes, they would do much
better once their property is legalized. No subsidies are required. This is a
common approach to the problem of appalling conditions in the informal
settlements that states, including Kazakhstan among others, have still failed
Kazakhstan’s government did not formalize squatters’ rights although
that was the initial intention because by the time of the legalization
campaign, their land, which had previously been outside the market radar,
was desired for the development of property that could gentrify the area and
increase revenues faster and to a much higher degree than the self-built
dwellings of not so privileged squatters. The state could allocate land plots
to the squatters further away, but at the price of land in 2006, it was feared
that this measure would make ‘‘land invasion’’ an attractive opportunity,
and not only for the poor migrants from the countryside but everyone else.
Most Almaty residents remained in small ﬂats, which they privatized in
the aftermath of socialism because the speculative boom made the new
housing unaffordable. It also dispossessed many of those whose property
was claimed under the eminent domain in exchange for inequitable
compensation. Oddly enough, this situation was fostered by the political
formatting of the market that was designed to achieve quite the opposite,
that is, to enable all residents of Almaty to improve housing conditions or
become proper home owners. It was grounded in the market-based policy
promoting access to credit and debt-ﬁnancing that in the end paralyzed the
state and made it unable to either deliver social justice or protect the market
from the self-inﬂicted catastrophe.
1. Evidence for this is documented in a number of studies, for example, Enste and
Schneider (2002),Fernandez-Kelly (2006, p. 4),Kramer (2006, p. 123), and Itzigsohn
(2006, p. 84).
2. For similar outcomes of the formalization program in Egypt, see Mitchell (2004).
3. Legality usually beneﬁts wealthier landowners, not the poor tenants or small
owners. How, for example, would legalization help starving families of tenants in
favelas in Northeast Brazil, where the mothers let their weaker infants die because of,
as Scheper-Hughes’ account (1993) shows, the endemic poverty? To borrow the
words of Robert Neuwirth, ‘‘one of the reasons they are able to survive is because
their neighborhoods are illegal’’ (2005, p. 297).
4. I conducted my research among recent urban migrants in 1999 and during my
return trips to Almaty in 2003 and 2005. In the summer of 2006, when the eviction
Eviction Wars and Property Rights Formalization in Kazakhstan 41
operations took place, I was in the Atyrau oblast, Kazakhstan, as noted earlier.
I came to Almaty in the ﬁrst week of August, that is, two weeks after the events.
At that time, Shanyrak and Bakay (luckily nobody I knew from the bazaar in Zarya
Vostoka was there) were under constant police surveillance, and the trauma of the
events was still burning among the residents who were searching for practical
solutions to their situation. I did not conduct interviews among residents in 2006,
which is why I had to rely primarily on indirect observation and media reports in my
analysis. In 2009, I went to Shanyrak and Bakay where I spoke with individual
residents, local activists, and members of political parties and other public
organizations about the past events and the ongoing situation. By then, the present
chapter was already drafted. However, there is not much I would want to change in
light of the newly collected data, which will be discussed elsewhere.
5. Here I draw on Fernandez-Kelly’s summary of recent conceptualization of
informality as ‘‘part and parcel of the process of modernization’’ as opposed to a
previous vision of it as ‘‘a vestige of earlier stages in economic development’’ (2006,
p. 18, emphasis added).
6. Raspredileniye zemel’nyh uchastkov pod stroitel’stvo priusadebnyh kottedzhey,in
7. About the same time, the court ruled that 115 dwellings in Shanyrak were
illegally built (Reuters, 2006).
8. The city used various ‘‘reasons’’ for the dispossession of squatters, including the
one that a major gas pipeline was buried underneath their houses. ‘‘Other ‘currents’
are at work there,’’ one of the committee members argued, pointing to political and
economic interests of the city authorities (Morzaeva, 2006a).
9. Those that followed the reuniﬁcation of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet
Union are among the most notorious examples.
10. A full text of the Law on Amnesty is available at http://e.gov.kz, the Electronic
Government of Kazakhstan.
11. Reported results of the campaign are ﬁlled with gaps and inconsistencies. Thus,
one million 486 thousand units of real estate property were reported as legalized, that
is, by 86 thousand units more than it was thought earlier belonged to the informal
sector. The total cost of this property amounted to KZT236.205 billion (USD 1
billion 889,640 thousand). A vague number of ‘‘over 22 thousand’’ of the total
legalized units are in Almaty, the value of which is quoted as KZT1.5 billion (USD 12
million). Yet, a simple calculation reveals the oddness of provided information. Thus,
the mean value of a legalized property unit in Almaty, the highest market in the
country, based on the reported data, is USD 545 while the legalized property unit
elsewhere would double that value – USD 1,283 – which could not be the case.
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