Land Reform in Kyrgyzstan

Princeton University This analysis is based in part on research conducted by Maya Gainer in November and December 2016 by Innovations for Successful Societies. The research was based on interviews conducted in Bishkek and Kant, Kyrgyzstan.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of 55 years of a state-owned land system, the mountainous Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan had to deal with an informal system of land tenure and ongoing conflicts about land ownership. Poverty rates were very high: nearly two-thirds of the population lived in poverty during the early 1990s.[1]

Having gained independence in 1991, however, Kyrgyzstan began a nationwide programme of land privatisation, promoting the formal registration of land. The objective was to stimulate economic development and reduce poverty while transitioning from a planned to a market economy.[2]

The challenge

As a Soviet republic from 1936 to 1991, Kyrgyzstan had no private ownership of land, while the ethnic Kyrgyz had a culture of nomadic herding. In this context, the formalisation of individual land rights was an unprecedented step. A new constitution in 1993 set the country on a path to privatisation and individual ownership of farm land. Both the Kyrgyz government and the Kyrgyz people themselves were dealing with the concept of private property for the first time, as they embarked on a vast land tenure transition.

Because the majority of inhabitants were engaged in agriculture, their economic prosperity depended on well-functioning land markets and firmly secured land rights.[3] “The question was how to map, register and document property rights so that people could transact efficiently in a new land market.”[4] In the early days of independence, the responsibility for land registration was divided among a number of state agencies. There was a clear need for simplification and rationalisation, because the available land ownership data was fragmented and Kyrgyzstan lacked a legislative basis for land registration.[5]

Additionally, the geography of Kyrgyzstan made access to its more remote regions challenging for the registration teams. The vast majority of Kyrgyzstan’s approximately 5 million citizens lived in rural areas, 94 percent of the country was more than 1,000 metres above sea-level, and about 40 percent was more than 3,000 metres above sea-level, three-quarters of which was under permanent snow and ice.

The initiative

The goal of transforming Kyrgyzstan into a market economy required modifications to institutional arrangements and a new legal framework for land administration.[6] Given the country’s predominantly rural nature and the importance of agriculture to the economy, the transfer of arable agricultural land into private ownership was a key step in the nation's social and economic transformation.[7] A constitutional referendum in 1998 paved the way for the formalisation of land registration procedures: "The referendum resulted in a constitutional change that explicitly allowed private ownership of land, in addition to municipal and state ownership".[8]

The objective of the land reform was to support the development of markets for land and property through the introduction of a comprehensive, reliable and well-functioning land and property registration system. In 1999 the Kyrgyz government established a new land agency, the State Agency for Registration of Immovable Property Rights, which became widely known as Gosregister. Its role was to facilitate, formalise, and monitor land registry, and ultimately to prevent disputes about land ownership.

In 2009, Gosregister was renamed the Department of Cadastre and Registration (DCR) and became part of a consolidated State Registration Service. All the information regarding property and land that had formerly existed in local registration offices was combined in a central record within the DCR.[9] Operating from a central office in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, and with 50 regional offices, the State Registration Service continues to serve as the hub for land administration services, including cadastral surveying and mapping, land valuation, and land registration.[10]

The public impact

The Kyrgyz government managed to formalise most citizens’ property rights during its systematic registration campaign, which began in the 1990s. Before its rollout, as few as 15 percent of households in rural areas had documents demonstrating their ownership of land. By 2012, 92 percent of the country’s privately-held lots were officially registered.

Despite extensive political turmoil (Kyrgyzstan experienced two revolutions within five years – in 2005 and 2010), Gosregister evolved into an effective land registry that was able to issue a certified copy of a property title within approximately two to seven days.[11] In 2017, Kyrgyzstan's land registration services were recognised by the World Bank’s Doing Business as among the best in the world. It had been in the top tier of countries worldwide, and in 2017 its distance-to-frontier score, which represented how close the country’s performance was to the best performance in the data set, was 90.6 out of 100. Kyrgyzstan scored significantly above the average for OECD countries, and received perfect scores for reliability of infrastructure and geographic coverage.[12]

Gosregister laid the foundation for an increasingly active property market, and developed the capacity to handle an increasing number of transactions. The agency’s formalised registration procedure facilitated the growth of registered property transactions and created its own revenues.[13] The results achieved by Gosregister far exceeded its original goals. The systematic land registration drive ended in 2007, by which time 2.5 million properties had been registered – more than four times the original target of 600,000 lots. These gains reflected the broader economic performance brought about by the radical change in the country’s property rights regime, and this enabled Kyrgyzstan to mitigate the challenges of informal land tenure that developing countries can often encounter.

Kyrgyzstan's land reform was primarily an economic growth project, and the country's average rates of growth – 3.5 percent in 2000, for example – were among the best in Central Asia. However, according to the World Bank's assessment, the reform also promoted local democracy, good governance, anticorruption, and access to justice.[14]

It took significant, well-focused effort to introduce an efficient and comprehensive property registration system in a country that had prohibited private landownership for decades. Gosregister’s first director, Tolobek Omuraliev, said: “At the time, all of us were former Soviet citizens, and we had no idea about private property registration. Now the Kyrgyzstani people can understand and defend their property rights.”[15] In a challenging political environment, Kyrgyzstan managed to create an effective and innovative land agency which served as a model for other countries in the region. For example, the applicable concepts and methods that had succeeded in Kyrgyzstan were later employed in Tajikistan.[16]

Written by Julia Schnatz

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.

Legitimacy

Public Confidence Fair

Following the 1998 Referendum on Private Landownership, land registration could begin. "To lay the groundwork for systematic registration, Gosregister engaged in nationwide and locally targeted information campaigns to explain how registration worked and why it was beneficial. Although the agency used mass media, the most effective mechanism involved public meetings."[22]

The public meetings prepared the way for the formal registration process. "Few people intuitively understood why registration was important, so giving people the opportunity to ask questions and see local leaders – whether the heads of neighbourhood organisations, elected officials, or clan or religious leaders – [endorsed] the process before a registration team came to their village."[23]

Even though the agency developed an effective message, communicating it posed a logistical challenge, and incidents of land-grabbing undermined general trust in the procedure. "Groups of scammers impersonating government employees sometimes stole people’s ownership certificates, likely with the intention of taking the land for themselves ... Some villages even chased away the agency’s teams because of concerns they were impostors."[24]

To increase public confidence and address conflicting ownership claims about particular parcels of land, the government established a land commission that consisted of Gosregister staff, local government officials, and community representatives.[25] To further raise awareness among citizens, the World Bank collaborated with local administrations to develop plans for managing state-owned land during the initial stages of the land tenure transition. These plans were then presented at public hearings in numerous villages, and succeeded in stimulating citizen involvement in decision-making on local land use issues.[26]

Stakeholder Engagement Fair

Given that land reform was carried out top down, the main internal stakeholders were government officials and ministries. After parliament passed the Law on State Registration of Immovable Property Rights and Transactions in Them in December 1998, Kyrgyzstan’s government had a broad legal mandate to establish Gosregister. Yet the agency’s position in relation to other parts of the government had been subject to heated debate in the lead-up to its creation in 1999. “The whole history of Gosregister is the history of small conflicts or big ones with other agencies”, said Tolobek Omuraliev, who became Gosregister’s first director.[17]

There was significant conflict between government officials over the question of where to locate Gosregister within the administration. The three main destinations under consideration were:

  • The Ministry of Justice, which oversaw the notaries who had administered property registration previously
  • The Ministry of Agriculture, which had led the agrarian reform
  • The State Land Management Agency.

President Akayev championed the idea of creating an autonomous agency, self-financed but linked to the land management agency, and settled the debate about Gosregister’s position in the administration in 1999. He issued a decree which merged the State Land Management Agency, the Bureau of Technical Inventory (BTI), and the State Cartographic Agency, and established the Gosregister as an autonomous agency, with initial funding from the World Bank as an external stakeholder.[18]

Some government officials were sceptical about creating an autonomous agency, though. They were concerned that this structure gave the land registry too much power, and many officials were worried about the potential for corruption. As a standalone agency, the Gosregister "might avoid political pressure to allow land grabbing or channel funds to officials, but with little direct oversight, it would have to rely on strong internal controls to prevent corruption" (see also Management below).[19]

Implementation of the registration policies was accompanied by nationwide and locally targeted information campaigns to explain the principles and benefits of land registration to the population. These campaigns were rolled out by individuals such as community leaders whom Kyrgyz citizens trusted, and this helped them to accept, understand and, ultimately, engage in the registration process.

Political Commitment Strong

Askar Akayev, the President of Kyrgyzstan from 1990 until his overthrow in the March 2005 Tulip Revolution, actively promoted the privatisation of land and other economic assets as part of his market-based growth strategy.

The Office of the President was the prime mover in the overall land legislation and policy. The 22 February 1994 presidential decree, Measures on Deepening Land and Agrarian Reform, underlined the government's priorities of creating effective market conditions, improving farm profitability, and instilling market principles in the economy.[20] In response to parliamentary critics of the land reforms, President Akayev emphasised the pressing need for them: “We need to tell them [the critics] that we will not stop this reform under any circumstances”.[21] This ultimately created the legal basis for agrarian reforms that had broad parliamentary support.

Policy

Clear Objectives Strong

The Kyrgyz land reform programme was aimed at reorganising and strengthening the system of land administration, streamlining procedures, and facilitating the registration of 600,000 lots, while ultimately fuelling economic growth and development, and preventing corruption.

In December 1998, the Law on State Registration of Immovable Property Rights and Transactions in Them was enacted. Early in 1999, a presidential decree established the Kyrgyz State Agency on Registration of Rights to Land and Real Estate (Gosregister), bringing together the functions of the old BTI and the State Land Management Agency.[27] The creation of Gosregister was part of an encompassing land reform that, according to a World Bank report, comprised two main objectives:

  1. A change in legal ownership of land from state property to private property
  2. A shift in farming structure from corporate to individual farms.[28]

Evidence Strong

Kyrgyz government officials collected evidence for the implementation of land ownership reforms, and their initiative was supported by external organisations such as the World Bank and USAID – before and during the creation of Gosregister. Before its creation, Gosregister's designated manager, Tolobek Omuraliev, collaborated with World Bank and USAID staff in gathering evidence that could be used to overcome the many challenges faced by his organisationBetween 1997 and 1998, two local governments piloted land registration systems by experimenting with procedures and communication strategies that could be applied nationwide.[29]

During the implementation of registration procedures, Sweden was used as a model for the advanced computer technology deployed in each of Gosregister’s local offices, according to USAID (the Swedish Registration Agency had provided technical assistance for land agencies in developing countries since the 1980s). Implementation staff also looked at similar experiences in land registration in Lithuania, which demonstrated how a post-Soviet country could make strides in land registration and used those procedures as a model (see also Feasibility below).[30]

Feasibility Fair

In implementing a fundamentally new registration system, Kyrgyzstan faced various feasibility challenges of equipment and staff capacity, financial constraints, and logistical problems. While attempts were made to overcome these, many challenges still prevailed.

Initially, limited staff and equipment capacity posed major obstacles. Lots were measured with sticks and horses because Gosregister did not have enough skilled cartographers at its disposal. Staff were also inexperienced in administering private land, and had to be trained in their new responsibilities.

Gosregister’s management continued to devote substantial time and resources to staff training. For instance, Gosregister’s local staff had been trained in Sweden, and were then given the opportunity to pass on what they had learned there to their colleagues. Together, the working groups from Kyrgyzstan and Sweden drafted a registration manual and general guidelines for employees to follow during the nationwide registration process. This enabled the agency as a whole to maximise the impact of the limited number of individuals who had participated in training abroad.[31]

Logistical challenges arose due to the nation's extreme geographic conditions (see The Challenge above), and significant effort was required in order to reach the rural population. In total, 49 local registry offices around the country were set up, largely based on the local offices of the former BTI. This was to make access to registration widely available – even if only modest transaction volumes were anticipated in the more remote rural districts. Having access to a registry office was especially important for poorer people who could not afford to travel far to register their property.[32] However, even though registry office were accessible to them, people in rural areas often lacked knowledge about their property registration rights, despite the campaigns and educational projects that had tried to address this problem.[33]

Financial constraints also arose shortly after Gosregister was established in 1999. While Gosregister’s predecessor agencies were funded from the central government budget, Kyrgyzstan’s state revenues after independence were relatively low. As a result, development aid from numerous multilateral organisations such as the UN and World Bank, as well as foundations such as USAID, was received by Kyrgyzstan during the years after independence, but these funds were an unstable source of finance. Even though donor funding and several years of central government allocations allowed for transition time, transaction volumes varied greatly between Local Registration Offices (LROs) in densely populated areas and remote places. Thus, some LROs had difficulties covering their costs and were dependent on assistance from other offices that enjoyed a surplus.[34]

Action

Management Good

Registering an entire country’s land rights was a lengthy process, and its management was decentralised. Initially, Gosregister’s managers focused on registering land in densely populated areas, where most transactions took place. The goal was to create as quickly as possible a sufficient supply of registered properties to enable further property transactions to take place, in order to create a trickle-down effect. Then, most activity occurred locally at the rayon (or district) and village levels, where land committees allotted parcels of land and determined who would receive the rights to use them. Due to the decentralised management of the process, the implementation varied from district to district. Some rayons made decisions about allocation but did not issue official documentation certificates, others simply failed to implement the process.[35]

The agency adapted some of its procedures to local registry offices’ experiences. The head office in Bishkek would propose certain procedures, and local offices would test them out and provide feedback. Gosregister’s managers assembled working groups to establish standard procedures and regulations, ranging from registration forms to mapping standards. The groups consisted mainly of representatives from land registry offices around the country, members of Gosregister’s central management team, World Bank project staff, and experienced lawyers from Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere who had been co-opted by the project.[36]

Some internal management challenges prevailed, however, especially with regard to Gosregister’s internal fight against corruption. Corruption became rife after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the privatisation process made it easy for well-connected people to obtain choice pieces of former collective farms. They used their positions to get land plots that were supposed to be for public use and not for development. Hence, Gosregister had to be careful to avoid creating further opportunities for land-grabbing during the registration process, while administrative bribery and corruption had become widespread and was an obstacle to good management.[37]

In response, Gosregister adopted pragmatic resolutions to the issue of corruption, and took key measures to stop staff from engaging in bribery or fraud. For instance, in response to incidents of stolen ownership certificates (see Public Confidence above), Gosregister’s registration teams were given distinctive uniforms to make it harder for fraudsters to impersonate them.[38] Careful monitoring helped deter corruption, because employees were unwilling to risk their job for a one-off bribe, and lists of phone numbers and complaint boxes were provided for citizens to report incidents of corruption.

Measurement Strong

Managers closely tracked both qualitative and quantitative metrics on a recurrent basis and relied on performance-based salaries, monthly targets, commission rates, and bonuses. Performance monitoring was a central part of Gosregister’s operation and culture: its managers were able to track errors, omissions and delays, as well as preventing corruption by tracking every change made to a record.

By 2007, a comprehensive monitoring system was in widespread use across the country. "Individual performance management, however, remained consistent even after the World Bank projects ended."[39] In 2016, the agency tightened procedures and monitoring to offer a shorter timeline for each type of registration service. According to Myrzabek Shamshiev, head of the registry office in Issyk-Ata rayon outside the capital city of Bishkek: “'Delays create opportunities for corruption' ... Officers had to work within the law, he stressed – but the shorter timelines meant customers had no reason to look for workarounds."[40]

Alignment Good

Gosregister collaborated with the Ministry of Justice to issue official regulations and revise legislation, for example through establishing legal aid centres in every oblast (province) to focus on land issues. These centres not only directly represented people who had property disputes but also provided ongoing legal education and service to local authorities.[41]

In order to align land ownership interests across Kyrgyzstan, “Gosregister had some flexibility to adjust how given guidelines were implemented, and they could introduce new procedures according to the needs of their local branches”.[42] Those needs were communicated by local offices via a feedback loop in order to improve the overall process.

However, Kyrgyz citizens were not fully persuaded of the importance of land registration, and many could not afford to pay the registration fee, which in turn meant that landowners registered their property only when they needed to conduct a transaction. This would have resulted in large amounts of land being held informally, which is why – following privatisation – the government imposed a five-year ban on selling agricultural land in order to allow time to educate citizens properly about land ownership and their property rights.[43]

Better alignment regarding land reform issues at the local level focused predominantly on enhancing access to, and knowledge of, land legislation and its application. To achieve this goal, USAID projects programmed various types of technical assistance, either through advisory services to communities as a whole or through one-on-one technical or legal services. Interviews in several communities revealed that, with the acquisition of knowledge about individual and community land rights, citizens appeared to be empowered to act individually or collectively to defend and enforce their property rights. In many cases, this was manifested by the increasing number of people seeking to register their land.[44]