The Legal Empowerment of the Poor and the Residential Registration System in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan

by Balihar Sanghera

Lacking tenure security and city residency permits (propiska), poor residents in major cities in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan struggle to survive without adequate access to education, health care, electricity, and running water, and are treated with contempt by state officials and middle class urban residents. They are also practically disenfranchised from electoral politics. Several international donors (such as the United Nations and the World Bank) argue that poverty can be tackled by enhancing the legal rights of poor groups, such as land and property tenure, protection from labour exploitation, and access to justice.[1] Although residential registration in these cities formally restricts basic human rights, its abolition or simplification will not necessarily improve the lives of poor residents or increase their access to social goods and services, because structural inequalities and widespread corruption remain unaddressed.

The residential registration system faces criticisms, because it violates international conventions on human rights and the national constitution on freedom of movement, inhibits rural residents from escaping a struggling rural economy, and entrenches abuse and exploitation of unregistered migrants in the city. Formally, unregistered individuals are socially excluded from the urban space, and have restricted access to public goods, social services, and electoral voting. The precarious position of unregistered individuals often forces them to pay bribes in order to receive education and health care. Bribery is a common practice in the public sector, undertaken by registered residents as well to ensure quality access to goods and services.

Advocates for the legal empowerment of the poor and other legal rights-based development strategies, such as access to justice, claim that many poor groups, including squatters, lack basic rights and legal protection, perpetuating their poverty, exploitation, and exclusion. If they were to have rights, such as property and labour rights, they could move into the formal and regulated economy, enter better-paid jobs, and face less exploitation and abuse. Furthermore, if they can obtain residential registration in the city that documentation and status will give them equal access to education and health care.

These ideas are compelling, but there are three reasons to question the effectiveness of legal empowerment strategies. First, most illegal settlers and unregistered migrants work in the secondary labour market, lacking skills, education, money, and networks of contacts to occupy more secure and better paid employment. Even if migrants were to obtain a city propiska, their secondary and informal positions would remain largely unchanged, because they do not have the resources and skills to enter the primary labour market. The exploitative and miserable nature of settler’s and migrants’ working conditions is shaped by wider economic and competitive industrial factors, which cannot be individualised to lacking residential registration.

Second, to access quality education and health care, almost everyone in the city has to pay bribes to school directors and hospital doctors. Bribe-giving is a common practice in schools, hospitals, universities, police departments, and the courts. To ensure quality access to education and health care, both respectable middle class residents and unregistered migrants pay bribes. In societies marked by petty corruption due to low salaries, poor professional training, weak oversight, and a lack of infrastructure, teachers, doctors, nurses, police officers, lawyers and others will extort payments from everyone, regardless of whether they have a residency permit or not.

Third, most illegal settlers possess basic adobe houses, which are unacceptable as collateral for bank loans. Residents are also not tempted to take credit because interest rates are often over 20 percent per month, and they do not want to risk losing their homes. Fundamentally, the credit market and the banking sector are imperfect, so that titling property will not have the desired effects on poverty reduction.

The potential liabilities of legalization, however, should be carefully measured against several possible benefits. Legalization can be seen as a necessary administrative first step for eligibility for state-guaranteed services and infrastructure and international support and assistance. Second, poor residents may be treated with greater human dignity and respect, and experience a reduction in anxiety, shame or stigma and become less regarded as dangerous, dirty and lazy. Third, economic activities in the settlements can be encouraged and properly regulated, ensuring greater income and comfort. Fourth, children, pregnant women, and the sick can obtain basic goods and services, without being penalized and disadvantaged by circumstances not of their own choosing. Fifth, legalization would recognise the state’s moral obligations toward its citizens, who often protest and resist the harm and injustices caused by the market system.

Overall, the strategy of legal empowerment of the poor fails to adequately conceptualize and address the structural aspects of poverty, social exclusion, and human well-being. It is better to view land legalization and city residency registration as creating useful conditions for major structural reforms and interventions.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz.

About the author:

Balihar Sanghera is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent, UK. His main interests are political economy and ethics. He examines how moral sentiments, judgements and responsibilities shape and are shaped by economic and social structures and institutions. In particular his research explores how class, inequalities and poverty affect everyday morality and politics. His research projects focus on the post-Soviet ‘moral economy’, and philanthropy and social justice. He has published in Theory and Society, International Sociology, Cambridge Journal of Economics, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy and Europe Asia Studies.

[1] Commission on Legal Empowerment for the Poor (2008), Making the Law for Everyone, available from