In rare climbdown, Kazakh leader delays land reforms for five years

August 18, 2016 1:19 PM EDT

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev delivers a speech during a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum 2016 (SPIEF 2016) in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 17, 2016. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

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ASTANA (Reuters) - Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev on Thursday deferred for five years a plan to lease large areas of farmland to foreign investors, in a rare climbdown that followed a wave of protests in a country he has controlled since 1989.

The protests, in April and May, were sparked by fears the reforms would allow foreigners - especially Chinese companies - to take over farmland, though many Kazakhs also demonstrated to express general discontent at Nazarbayev's rule.

To defuse the tensions, which followed a crash in the price of Kazakhstan's main export oil and a sharp depreciation of the local tenge currency, Nazarbayev in May delayed the reforms until the end of this year.

He also set up a commission to review them and, citing its proposal, said on Thursday the legal changes, initially due to take effect last month, would now be shelved for five years.

"We need to study the global practices again and explain (the reform) properly to the population, which requires additional time," Nazarbayev's office quoted him as saying in a statement.

The public protests, which took place in several major cities, were relatively small. But even that is rare in the former Soviet republic where Nazarbayev, 76, has tolerated little dissent.

Police detained dozens of protesters most of whom were either fined or jailed for up to 15 days. Several leading activists have been charged with more serious violations and face longer prison terms.

(Reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; editing by John Stonestreet)

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