Kyrgyz Protest Giving Land to Kazakhs

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Hundreds of people marched in Kyrgyzstan's scenic Issyk-Kul region Saturday to protest a government decision approving the handover of prized territory in the area to neighboring Kazakhstan.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev approved the controversial measure Thursday to give Kazakhstan ownership of four Soviet-era tourist complexes on top Issyk-Kul Lake, which is set amid mountain peaks.

The deal was initially agreed to in 2001 by former Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, who was toppled from power in a wave of protests in March 2005.

Under the deal, Kyrgyzstan will receive a larger expanse of territory from Kazakhstan -- but critics say it is inferior to the land they are giving up in exchange.

Kyrgyzstan will also give up three other disputed areas along the border with Kazakhstan.

"Land transfers always cause a lot grievances among the population," said opposition Social Democrat party lawmaker Murat Jurayev.

"The memory is still fresh from the mass protests that followed when Akayev transferred land to China," he said, referring to a 2000 agreement ceding more than 1,200 square kilometers.

Kyrgyz news reports said around 300 people set off from the village of Tyupe on Saturday morning on the protest march.

Critics also say the land transfer could set a dangerous precedent. Territorial boundaries remain contentious in many Central Asian nations, whose borders were haphazardly set by Soviet authorities in Moscow -- often regardless of ethnic distinctions.

"If we agree to give up land in the agreement concluded illegitimately by Akayev, then next in line will be Uzbekistan, with whom we have far more issues over land," Jurayev said.

Proponents of the handover, however, argue that the struggling Kyrgyz economy stands to benefit from investment in the tourist industry from energy-rich Kazakhstan.

"According to official estimates, Kazakhs coming on holiday to Kyrgyzstan earned the country some 8 billion Kyrgyz ($220 million) in 2007 alone," the head of the state property committee, Tursun Turdumambetov, said in a parliamentary debate this month.

Bakiyev's government has also sought to dissipate public frustration by offering assurances that 80 percent of workers at the redeveloped tourist complexes will be Kyrgyz.

Despite widespread discontent over the Issyk-Kul land loss, the overwhelmingly pro-president parliament definitively approved the decision earlier this month.

But the Akyl Ordo movement, which is campaigning against the land transfer, accused the government of rushing the measure through because they feared a public backlash.

"The hasty submission of this matter to parliament, supposedly at the request of the deputies, once again confirms that the authorities were deeply concerned that there should be a positive outcome, just in case of growing pressure from the population," the group said in a statement.