Changes to the law in Kazakhstan requiring citizens traveling within the country to register with local authorities if they remain in one locality for more than one month has, as if on cue, blown up in the government’s face.
The new rules led in the past few days to long lines appearing at understaffed government service centers as people desperately tried to get their papers in order to avoid incurring official warnings and fines of up to 30,000 tenge ($90).
On January 11, Information Minister Dauren Abayev used his Facebook account to issue an apology over the fiasco.
“The public outcry and criticism of the authorities is understandable and justifiable. Unfortunately, not all the mechanisms [of this new rule] have been worked out in a timely and effective manner,” Abayev wrote.
Despite the furore, officials are sticking to their guns on the policy.
“The law has been adopted and should be implemented. Our task is to create the maximum convenience for citizens going through the registration process,” Abayev said.
Some government service centers have had to switch to 12-hour days and work through the weekend to cope with the crowds. Over the past weekend, more than 16,000 people managed to get registered as required.
Meanwhile, grumbling has been silenced forcibly through technical measures.
An online petition calling for the law, which came into force on January 7, to be scrapped was signed by 6,000 people before the petition site avaaz.org was mysteriously blocked.
The episode has again illustrated the arbitrary way in which Kazakhstan’s government adopts inconvenient rules and then fails to issue public information about them in a timely fashion. The registration farrago has hallmarks of the land privatization scheme that last year culminated in some of the largest protests the country has seen since independence.
As authorities scramble for a way out, a blame game has got underway.
At a government meeting on January 10, Prime Minister Bakytzhan Sagintayev criticized Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov for failing to properly inform the public about the law and admitted that the government had again failed to reach out.
“There is no effort to clarify. Every time here we stumble. In future, we have to take this into consideration. Bolster work on information and clarification. And this has to be done at the maximum convenience of the citizens,” Sagintayev was quoted as saying by Vlast.kz website.
Kasymov in turn blamed the panic on the “lively discussion of the issue of registration in the press and on social media.”
Kazakhstan already had government regulations regarding registration for temporary residence but that provision has now been made binding by amendments to the migration law. The period for registration was reduced from three months to one month, while landlords are now obliged to register their tenants within 10 days.
It was also not properly explained how the authorities intended to run checks on temporary registration, although the Interior Ministry’s press office has suggested that reports from neighbors could constitute sufficient evidence for fining violators. That raised specters of the Soviet-style denunciations wherein neighbor would tittle-tattle against neighbor over perceived anti-social or politically deviant transgressions.
Even people that declined to divulge incriminating information about unregistered neighbors could face sanctions under the new system, according to the Interior Ministry.
Media reports quickly circulated that police have already been conducting door-to-door inspections in the business capital, Almaty, although Kasymov downplayed this, explaining that this was merely a precautionary measure ahead of the imminent Universiade 2017 competition.
The registration was intended in part to supposedly tackle the risk of terrorism, but experts were skeptical it would achieve that end.
“Terrorist acts in the past few years were of course carried out by people that moved freely around the country, often renting out accommodation in which they were sometimes preparing explosives. But the devil is in the detail. After all, extremists can prepare for a terrorist attack by renting a house for a much shorter period than that provided for in this law,” political analyst Dosym Satpayev wrote on his Facebook account.
The practice of renting out apartments for single nights is commonplace in Kazakhstan.
Azat Peruashev, a member of parliament and leader of the pocket opposition party Ak Zhol, was personally involved in approving the law, but even he recognized its shortcomings.
“I talked about this. More likely what would happen is that terrorists would not come to register. All we are doing is creating problems for our law-abiding citizens. And those who have come to carry out a terrorist attack or those involved in terrorist activist will be the ones that will hide,” Peruashev told journalists.
Given the strength of his feelings on the matter, it is a conundrum as to why Peruashev didn’t resist the law when it was passing through parliament.
Still, authorities object that the law was about more than just terrorism.
“The main objective of registering citizens was to monitor processes of internal migration, so as to solve socio-economic problems,” Kasymov said. “This is medical services, education, employment, development of infrastructure and so on.”
Since the government has showed no intent to budge, the advice from Information Minster Abayev is: “suck it up.”
“In general, we are asking the citizens to understand the current situation, and for its part, the ministry will continue to make every effort to reach a solution,” he wrote.