Wednesday, 22 May 2002

KAZAKHSTAN LAUNCHES A PROGRAM TO BOOST RURAL ECONOMY

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By Marat Yermukanov, Kazakhstan (5/22/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The dramatic decline of the rural economy in the last ten years has been the cause of heated discussions in the Kazakh parliament on many occasions. Political factionsand opposition forces still harp on the subject, using growing unemployment, health risks, worsening educational opportunities, poor infrastructure, and the low income of farmers as an unassailable argument in their criticism of government policy. Such a tactic often bears fruits.
The dramatic decline of the rural economy in the last ten years has been the cause of heated discussions in the Kazakh parliament on many occasions. Political factionsand opposition forces still harp on the subject, using growing unemployment, health risks, worsening educational opportunities, poor infrastructure, and the low income of farmers as an unassailable argument in their criticism of government policy. Such a tactic often bears fruits. Some time ago, women from remote villages made long marches to the capital city to petition government offices and the parliament building, demanding their child-care allowances unpaid for many months.

Statistical data show that 44,8% of the population of the country live in rural areas. Kazakhs traditionally are deeply attached to their native villages and the feeling of solidarity and mutual support are strongly developed in their communities. But the shocking reality is that 80% of the rural population get income less than the minimal existence sum. For many families left without employment after the privatization of agricultural state enterprises, the only source of income is a tiny plot of land and some livestock. Giving their children modern education is not on the list of priorities of those who live from hand to mouth.

In the framework of the privatization program, a considerable size of land formerly owned by state enterprises has been given on leasing basis to rural residents. But agricultural machines and equipment needed to cultivate these lands were grabbed by former directors of state farms who distributed or sold them as they thought fit. Most families left without machinery had to cede their land for a ridiculous share of the produced grain.

Not surprisingly, the size of cultivated land in rural areas dropped from 34,9 million hectares in 1991 to 19,4 million hectares by the year 2000. In the same period, the number of livestock was reduced by 50%. Paradoxically, Kazakhstan, a largely agricultural country, imports most of its foodstuffs from Russia. In the last five years, the amount of imports of agricultural produce increased by 1,8. The reason is that the reprocessing industry for agricultural products in Kazakhstan is underdeveloped. Import duties, on the other had, are low. Practically, there are no effective means to protect the domestic market.

In his recent annual address to the nation, President Nursultan Nazarbayev called for the government to work out measures to revive the rural economy. Plans envisaged for the period of 2003-2005 include the annual allocation of government money to the tune of 10 billion tenge to build schools, hospitals, roads and water supply system in rural areas. Additional 8 billion tenge should be earmarked to develop agricultural sector of the economy.

The president pointed out the inconsistency with which the land reform is being carried out at present. He admitted that the existing Land Law failed to produce expected results and suggested that parliament should adopt a law on private ownership of land. It is quite likely that such a law will be passed no later than this autumn.

In recent years hundreds of small villages have simply ceased to exist for lack of schools, hospitals and transport communication. Their residents are migrating into cities in increasing numbers. That creates a new problem of overpopulation and unemployment in overcrowded cities. Lost in big cities, migrants without permanent place of residence or work contribute to the rise of criminality.

These promises were met with palpable joy by rural residents. Judging by the storm of enthusiastic comments in the press, many believe that government measures will put an end to the ongoing urban migration and stop the decay of villages. If, that is, words are followed by deeds.

Marat Yermukanov, Kazakhstan

Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved

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