Sun, 16 May 2021

Residents of a village in western Kazakhstan are up in arms over construction of a fence along the border with Russia that they say has deprived them of access to drinking water for their livestock.

Dozens of people in Koptogay, which is in the western Atyrau province, mounted an impromptu protest last week, just as border service troops began building work.

Local residents interviewed by Ak Zhayik newspaper expressed indignation that they had not been warned in advance.

"If the cows cross over to the other side, will it be a border violation or what?" one resident reportedly stated.

The appearance of barbed wire perimeters near homes has also alarmed families with young children, the newspaper reported.

The Border Guard Service has said in its own defense that the demarcation work is being done in compliance with a bilateral agreement with Russia from 2005.

"In 2020 ... it was found that 1,500 meters of protective fence that had been installed was 70 meters inside Russian territory," the service said. "Work is now underway to dismantle and re-erect the aforementioned fence."

Local activists have pushed back against this, however, asserting that a 1977 map of the area shows the land now allocated to Russia as part of what was then the Kazakh SSR.

As of April 19, the demonstration had forced a temporary suspension of demarcation works.

The authorities now show signs of being rattled by what they are describing as provocateurs. Video footage has been circulating on social media in recent days purporting to show a confrontation between Kazakh troops and protesting civilians in the border area. The video contains appeals for viewers to "protect the land" and "not be silent."

The National Security Committee on April 18 described the contents of the video as false and said it had actually been filmed during a recent military exercise.

Land has become a highly contentious issue in Kazakhstan, and one over which the government is reluctant to test public sentiment.

In 2016, proposed land reforms that envisioned the sale of farming land to foreigners sparked an unusually intense wave of protests. Those demonstration culminated in the government backing down and, later, banning the sale of land to foreigners altogether.

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