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Qishloq Ovozi

A Uyghur woman walks on a street in Urumqi, the capital of China's Xinjiang region. (file photo)

The end of one of the most bizarre periods of Ramadan the Uyghur people have ever known is drawing to a close. The Turkic Muslim people living in the area of western China now called Xinjiang were forced by Beijing to forego the month's obligatory fasting, the latest intrusion by authorities into the Uyghur way of life. But at the same time, the plight of the Uyghurs has arguably been receiving the most international attention, well, ever.

Last month as Ramadan started, Chinese authorities moved to prevent Uyghurs from fasting. The state food and drug administration in Xinjiang's Jinghe County posted information that "food service workplaces will operate during normal hours during Ramadan" and that includes restaurants owned by Uyghurs. Officials in Xinjiang's Bole County were told, "During Ramadan, do not engage in fasting, vigils, or other religious activities."

Radio Free Asia (RFA) obtained a copy of a document sent to local officials in Xinjiang just before the start of the Muslim holy period warning them that "Ramadan is coming." RFA said village officials were urged to "keep a close watch on politically suspect families, who are required during the fasting month to report in person to authorities each morning and night."

The ban on fasting is a new tactic in an ancient conflict between the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese. In fact, problems between the Uyghurs and the Han started before Islam was a religion.

But in the age of Islamic extremism, religion has become one of the biggest contemporary problems between the two peoples, despite the fact that at its core, the Uyghur movement for independence from China is a nationalist movement. Many Uyghurs believe they face extinction as a culture and a people.

Uyghurs are resisting the rule of China's Communist Party just as Uyghurs have resisted the domination of previous Chinese governments. After the 1949 revolution, the new government in Beijing employed the old tactic of sending Han to work and live in the Uyghurs' homeland. However, what was usually just a trickle became a flood in the 1990s when oil and gas were discovered in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang. Currently, the number of Han in Xinjiang is approaching parity with the indigenous Uyghurs.

As the arrival of Han has increased during the last two decades, so too has the level of violence in Xinjiang. There was a riot in the city of Yining in 1997 and bombings in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, the same year. Dozens, possibly hundreds, died in that violence.

Over the past two years, Uyghurs have attacked Han Chinese at Xinjiang bus and train stations and in the streets, killing dozens, followed quickly by police, security, and military forces killing dozens of Uyghurs. At least three Chinese policemen were killed at the start of Ramadan; at least 18 Uyghurs have been killed since its start.

Beijing has portrayed Xinjiang as a region rife with the "three evils" -- terrorism, religious extremism, and separatism. Chinese authorities have initiated a series of security operations in Xinjiang with code names such as Strike Hard, which gives some indication of the aggressiveness of these campaigns.

But increasingly these campaigns have focused on taming the Uyghurs by targeting their religion, and now that has invited the sort of international attention Beijing has sought to avoid.

Recent rules have forbidden all but elderly Uyghur men from growing beards. Women are prohibited from wearing burqas. People under 18 are not allowed to attend mosque.

But it was the ban on fasting that fired Muslim passions far from Xinjiang and brought the Uyghur issue into the spotlight in Turkey, home to an estimated 300,000 Uyghurs. Turkey's foreign minister released a statement that said, "Our people have been saddened over the news that Uyghur Turks have been banned from fasting or carrying out other religious duties in the Xinjiang region."

Protests against Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs started in Turkey in late June, with some demonstrators burning Chinese flags outside the Beijing's embassy in Ankara. There were reports of Chinese tourists being targeted by angry protesters, and several Chinese restaurants, most belonging to Turkish owners, were vandalized.

China issued a travel warning to citizens traveling to Turkey.

The focus of the Turkish demonstrators switched on July 9, when it was learned Thai authorities had deported 109 Uyghurs to China. Thailand temporarily closed its embassy in Ankara and its consulate in Istanbul after protesters stormed the consulate the same day.

Southeast Asian countries have become a prime destination for Uyghurs fleeing China, most hoping eventually to travel on to Turkey. The Uyghurs deported on July 9 had been in Thailand for more than a year claiming they were Turkish.

Thai authorities have allowed other Uyghurs to travel on to Turkey, and Bangkok seemed taken by surprise that the country's diplomatic missions in Turkey had suddenly become the focus of angry Muslim protesters.

Thai officials referred to the extradition request from China. Beijing claimed the 109 Uyghurs were headed to the Middle East to join extremist groups and that 13 of them had fled China after committing unspecified terrorist acts.

But protesters in Turkey won't soon forget photographs of the Uyghurs, in black hoods, being taken to the plane, sitting on board, and disembarking in China.

For the record, there are Uyghurs who have left China and joined Islamic extremist groups in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

At the same time, the "terrorist" attacks Beijing points to in Xinjiang are usually carried out with knives and axes. The day before Ramadan started, a Uyghur man was mortally wounded in the northwestern city of Xian when he attacked people waiting in line to buy tickets at a train station. His weapon: a brick.

China has tried for many years to avoid seeing its problem with the Uyghurs become a pan-Islamic issue, preferring to brand Uyghurs "separatists."

But this latest move -- banning fasting during Ramadan -- has brought the Uyghurs' plight to the attention of fellow Turkic Muslims in Turkey and between China and Turkey are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, lands of other Turkic Muslim peoples who share a kinship with the Uyghurs.

President Nursultan Nazarbaev's has his work cut out to minimize the effects of the economic crisis and maintain stability in Kazakhstan.

Qishloq Ovozi is pleased to once again introduce an up-and-coming scholar in the field of Central Asian studies, Bradley Jardine, a student at Glasgow University and currently an intern at RFE/RL. Jardine examines Kazakhstan’s efforts to alleviate the effects of a regional economic crisis, while at the same time preserving what could be described as national vanity projects.

As Central Asia’s regional economic crisis deepens, the Kazakh economy has started to crack and it's led the Astana government to take a series of steps designed to mitigate the effects of the crisis.

However, increasingly it is social and infrastructure programs that are bearing the brunt of financial cuts while scarce funding is directed to state-owned energy companies and large-scale projects aimed at boosting Kazakhstan’s international image.

Due to Kazakhstan’s close economic relationship with Russia, and the country’s dependence on oil exports, which accounted for 70 percent of 2014’s exports, Kazakhstan’s economy has been one of the hardest hit in Central Asia. The government has already been forced to revise the budget twice since last year, first to refigure finances based on oil being $80 per barrel, then again early in 2015 to base the budget on the price of oil being $50 per barrel.

In February 2015, the government warned that 120,000 workers could be laid off due to economic difficulties.

The depth of the country’s economic hardships were highlighted in a poll released by Bloomberg on July 2, which placed Kazakhstan in the world’s top-10 worst performing economies as a result of its reduced growth forecasts that plunged to just 1.2 percent. (From 2000 until 2007, Kazakhstan's growth in gross domestic product (GDP) was around 10 percent annually).

Oil Sector Hit Hard

President Nursultan Nazarbaev reacted swiftly to the crisis in 2014, ordering the National Bank to devalue the Kazakh tenge by 19 percent to stay ahead of the Russian ruble’s decline. However, the sudden devaluation hit the population hard, slashing their savings by one-fifth overnight while simultaneously causing food prices to soar. Ultimately, the devaluation failed to keep Kazakhstan’s exports competitive and manufacturing areas along the Russian border are in disarray.

Many analysts believe another devaluation is inevitable though Kazakh officials continue to deny that will be necessary.

The oil sector is now suffering heavily, with KazMunaiGaz (KMG) announcing plans to sell half its 16.8 percent shares in the Kashagan oil field project to Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna for some $4.7 billion, with the option to repurchase between January 2018 and December 2020.

The project has witnessed numerous setbacks with estimates for Kashagan’s development ballooning from $57 billion to some $136 billion. The deal is itself extremely opaque, with the $4.7 billion to be paid entirely in cash. KMG will reportedly use these funds to lower its debt, which currently stands at $19.7 billion.

The announcement that the sovereign wealth fund would be used to essentially bail out the state oil and gas company came the same day President Nazarbaev announced that Samruk-Kazyna, a joint-stock company whose assets account for 56 percent of the national GDP, will no longer support the economy.

This is a huge shift away from the state policy enacted throughout 2014, in which the fund invested over 1 trillion tenge ($5.4 billion) to stimulate the economy. In a July 2 national teleconference, President Nazarbaev stated, “In difficult times we cannot spend the money of the National Fund. From now on the National Fund will not allocate money to support the economy.”

The government’s program to inject some $9 billion into the economy over the next three years does remain in effect, however. But many programs have already been suspended while the economic problems continue. Parliamentary deputy Tanirbergen Berdongarov from the ruling Nur-Otan party told journalists that the state program for housing construction would be suspended "for this year."

The government announced in May it would stop offering free lunches at secondary schools across the country from September 2015 onwards. The government had been spending 300 tenge ($1.60) per day for each of the country’s 2.6 million children in school.

Expensive Events

Irina Smirnova, the principal of an Almaty high school, told Tengrinews on June 15 that “the provision of healthy food is important. Because of the economic crisis, [government officials] said: ‘let’s cut down on food.’ But probably it's possible to cut down on other events being held in the country.”

Smirnova was likely alluding to two events that loom, or potentially loom, in Kazakhstan’s future.

The first is EXPO-2017, an international exhibition on the future of energy which will take place in the capital Astana. It is expected, according to Kazakh officials, to bring some 5 million local and international visitors.

Kazakh officials said in the early days of the economic crisis that some projects were off limits to cuts. EXPO-2017 was one of them.

On June 19, EXPO-2017 CEO Sulambek Berkinkhoyev was detained. Sulambek was accused of collaborating with others who had previously been arrested in an embezzlement scheme to appropriate 214 million tenge ($1.15 million). Among those others was the former head of the exhibition organizer's construction department, Kazhymurat Usenov, who was detained in May 2014. Talgat Yermegiyaev, the former head of EXPO-2017, was indicted in June 2015.

There is also the matter of funding for EXPO-2017. According to the government’s plan, some 1.2 billion euros (nearly $1.32 billion) is to be spent on EXPO-2017, and of that, some 1 billion euros is to come through investments, though it is not clear from where. Large companies doing business in Kazakhstan are widely reported to be among these investors. In the oil sector, majors such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, LUKoil, the China National Petroleum Corporation, and others are active in Kazakhstan. But it is unclear if all or only some of these companies are expected to pitch in on EXPO-2017 and what they are, or might be, contributing.

(Ironically, the theme of EXPO-2017 is renewable, or clean energy and Kazakhstan has been implementing many projects for solar power, wind power, and small hydropower plant projects. The event aims to promote use of such technologies as a way of countering climate change. )

At the same time, Kazakhstan has seen devastating floods in northern areas of the country. This year, May floods affected over 3,000 homes in five Kazakh regions in the north. Almost 18,000 people were evacuated in advance from the affected regions. Damage in the Karaganda region amounted to 15 billion tenge ($81 million) but only 220 million tenge has been paid out so far.

The other event is Kazakhstan’s bid for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. Again, the government is pursuing the games as a way to enhance the country’s international image, but considering the current economic situation it is easy to question the expense of the bid -- and even more so, the construction of the facilities should Kazakhstan be awarded the event.

-- Asem Tokayeva of RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service contributed to this report

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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.