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Qishloq Ovozi

A Chinese worker of the Asia Gas Pipeline (AGP) walks along the Kazakh stretch of the 1,833-kilometer Turkmenistan-China pipeline. (file photo)

With the announcement of its new $16.3 billion Silk Road plan, China has again demonstrated it has the greatest economic influence in Central Asia at the moment. This trend is likely to continue for some years since Russia’s economic situation puts Moscow in a position where it cannot hope to spend freely in Central Asia any time soon.

But Chinese economic influence in Central Asia should not be confused with political or military dominance. Beijing profits most from the relationship it already has with Central Asia.

I wrote something about China and Central Asia earlier and I made the point in that article that China’s main interest in Central Asia is energy resources. China is seeking energy resources all around the world to help drive its economic growth.

Until recently, some 80 percent of China’s oil and gas imports came by tanker through the Malacca Straits. Beijing worries that if tensions broke out, an unfriendly power could block the straits. Central Asia is a neighbor, so it is not that strange that China is funding the development of Central Asian oil and gas fields and the construction of oil and gas pipelines to bring these fuels to China.

The deals China has with the Central Asian countries are similar to the deals China has with neighboring Burma, where Chinese companies have been developing oil and gas fields. There is a gas pipeline to China operating already and a parallel oil pipeline should start work in the coming months.

China signed the deals with the military government, but Burma’s political future is now unclear. And Burma is not the only neighbor causing concerns for Beijing.

China’s neighbors also include unpredictable North Korea, Laos, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Other neighbors Vietnam, Russia, and India are all countries with which China has been involved in military conflicts since 1960. Nepal and Bhutan are under suspicion because of their Buddhist ties to Tibet.

That leaves only Mongolia and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, specifically) as neighbors China can consider friendly. Admittedly, much of that friendship is based on Chinese investment.

China has never interfered in Central Asia’s internal politics, never voiced an opinion on inter-regional disputes like borders or water rights, and never, publicly, had anything but praise for Central Asian leaders. It is in China’s interest that the situation remains as it is now.

Security is another area where some believe China will be exerting its influence in Central Asia in the future.

This thought seems based on China’s problems with the Muslim Uyghurs who live in western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and the fear of an expansion of jihadism.

Uyghur resistance to Chinese rule goes back more than 1,000 years and has surfaced every time China was able to claim the region. The Uyghur movement is essentially a nationalist movement. Uyghurs are fighting for their homeland and the preservation of their culture, not for religion, although Islam is part of their culture.

Uyghurs have made news this year for carrying out several attacks in XUAR, mainly on Han Chinese. Such attacks and unrest have been happening in XUAR for decades already, though not so frequently as in 2014. Uyghurs have been reported among militant groups in Pakistan’s tribal area and in Afghanistan and that led to speculation the Uyghurs are training for jihad in XUAR. But many of the attacks this year were committed by people with knives and axes.

However, it is not surprising that some Uyghurs are seeking help from jihadist groups. Who else would help a Muslim group in China?

If the security situation across the border in Central Asia were to deteriorate drastically due to Islamic extremists, might not China feel compelled to intervene?

Some speculate Beijing would use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia, as the vehicle for sending in military forces.

If China did so, it would require reorienting its current military posturing, which is facing east where the threat of the United States and its allies Japan, South Korea, and Beijing’s goal of Taiwan are located.

More importantly, the first Chinese soldier who steps foot on Central Asian soil to engage in hostilities changes China’s conflict with the Uyghurs into a battle easily portrayed as being with the Islamic world.

China would become embroiled in a protracted guerrilla war. Historically, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has not fought well outside Chinese borders, taking huge losses in Korea and Vietnam. Even during the brief hostilities with the Soviet Union on the Ussuri River, Chinese losses were several times higher than those of Soviet troops.

The PLA has no experience fighting in a guerrilla war and is, in fact, designed for large-scale, open warfare.

And China would also have to consider its projects and investments all around the world, any one of which could suddenly be targeted by Islamic terrorists.

So while China might quietly try to manipulate events in Central Asia, there is nothing to be gained from openly becoming involved in Central Asia’s politics or its problems. But there is a lot to lose.

-- Bruce Pannier

A screen capture of the "Lodger's Dream" contest as it appears on the RFE/RL Kazakh Service website

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, is currently holding an interesting contest called "Kvartirantting Armany" (Lodger's Dream, or Mechta Kvartiranta in Russian) that encourages people from Kazakhstan to blog about their experiences in trying to obtain their own home or flat.

The short articles also contain some personal history from these people, all of whom have grim tales to tell of their efforts to find a permanent dwelling.

I was curious, why this topic? Why now?

People in Kazakhstan have experienced problems with their homes before, mostly due to accepting credit they couldn't repay or simply being swindled. And it has sparked local protests, but they always fizzled out eventually.

So I spoke with Azattyq director Torokul Doorov. He told me that in recent months the service has been receiving all sorts of complaints from people in Kazakhstan about their housing problems. "Practically every other day we get such reports."

The problems vary.

The case of Gulzhaz Abzhamalova in Kazakhstan's central Karaganda Province is an unfortunately all-too-familiar story around the world. She and her three children, now 11, 8, and 6 years old, moved into an abandoned flat in the industrial town of Satpaev. Her husband died five years ago and she has tuberculosis and cannot find work, so the vacated flat was their only option. She moved into the flat despite warnings from friends that the building was also home to alcoholics and homeless people. But she said there was no other choice, occupied one of the flat, and has done what she could to fix the place up and make it look something like a home.

Authorities finally noticed her presence and have ordered her and family out of the building, although those same authorities cannot offer Gulzhaz an alternative place for her family to live.

Further to the southwest, just some 20 kilometers outside Kazakhstan's biggest city, Almaty, there is a different problem for some residents of the town of Koyandy. Authorities recently declared 167 homes in the town were built on land belonging to the government and private entities and ordered the destruction of those homes.

The residents of these homes say they were given the land because they are "Oralmany," ethnic Kazakhs who came to Kazakhstan after 1991 independence. The Kazakh government encouraged Kazakhs in countries such as Mongolia to come their nominal homeland and offered the "returnees" incentives, such as land for a home.

In Koyandy, an Oralmany organization called Zhana Kadam distributed the 96 hectares of land to 180 of the returnee families in 2004. The problem was that 32 hectares of that land was not the organization's land to give.

So, after a decade, the families unfortunate enough to have built their homes on these 32 hectares are being evicted and their homes razed.

Up north by the capital, Astana, schoolteacher Kamar Dosmaganbetova and her family are among many who could not afford the high cost of housing in Astana and chose instead to build a home on the vast empty expanse of land outside the city. She said that after arriving in the town of Ondiris in 2007, parents of her students told her that people could simply build a house out on the steppe. Dosmaganbetova's family was even able to obtain a loan for construction material and built a house on the outskirts of Ondiris. Their home is modest, not even a shower and they depend on a stove for heat.

Lately, she has been receiving phone calls from the local authorities telling her she must vacate her illegal dwelling. She said apparently the land her home is built on belongs to a local businessman who also happens to be, according to Dosmaganbetova, a lawmaker.

Saule Igisinova never says exactly where in Kazakhstan she lives. But she recounts how after she married and had her first child the small flat where the new family lived was clearly inadequate. "We started to suffocate from the cramped space," she recalled. With "barely enough money to make ends meet," she and her husband decided "with a heavy heart" to move in with "the parents."

Saule said later, after the couple had another child, she decided to look into housing loans provided under the "young family" program. "We were a young couple, young specialists, with a higher education" and "a lot had been written and advertised about it." She and husband decided to look into the loans for young families. They discovered after checking the documents carefully that if they took the loan they would end up paying twice the original cost of the flat.

Saule's problem was solved when an elderly "auntie" died and left her and her family the two-room flat auntie owned. Now with three children, Saule said that of course the children are growing and it's getting a little cramped but we're not crying or complaining..."

Yesey Zhenisuly wrote about having three children and looking for a flat. He said landlords prefer families with no more than two children so he "hides" one of his offspring every time he goes to look at a flat.

Ayatzhan Akhmetzhan wrote that Kazakhs seem to have returned to their nomadic roots since so many now travel from place to place looking for a pasture.

Every Central Asian country has been going through housing problems, but Kazakhstan, economically, is better off than the other Central Asian states. The per capita wage in Kazakhstan is about $8,500 per year, more than three times its counterpart in Kyrgyzstan and more than five times the figure in Tajikistan.

Azattyq has been running the contest for several weeks, posting the blogs in Kazakh and Russian, and is allowing its audience to decide who authored the best article.

The winner receives a new iPad. The last day of the contest in December 1, with the winner announced soon after.

-- Bruce Pannier (with help from Torokul Doorov and Galym Bokash, based on material collected and reported by Sultan Askarov, Svetlana Glushkova, Nurtai Lakhanuly)

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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