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Qishloq Ovozi

China's Kyrgyz minority has too much in common with Uyghurs, as Turkic Muslims, for Beijing's comfort.

Earlier this month, Qishloq Ovozi looked at China's recent worries about its ethnic Kazakhs and now there is information China has similar concerns about its ethnic Kyrgyz citizens.

The Kazakhs and the Kyrgyz are Turkic peoples and the vast majority are Muslims, two distinctions from Han Chinese that are the reasons for Beijing's relatively newfound and increasing unease.

The Kyrgyz and Kazakhs -- in what today is China -- mainly inhabit the western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an area that has seen outbreaks of violence connected to another Turkic Muslim group in Xinjiang, the Uyghurs.

Some Uyghurs in China have been waging a campaign for independence for decades.

The appearance of small groups of Uyghurs in the ranks of Islamic extremist formations in the Middle East in the last few years has caused Beijing to reassess the more than 60-year-old Uyghur separatist efforts in Xinjiang as now deriving inspiration from Islam.

The Kyrgyz and Kazakhs are increasingly seen by the Chinese authorities as -- at the least -- potential confederates of the Uyghurs. "For example," says one ethnic Kyrgyz man from China who is now living in Kyrgyzstan, "[Chinese authorities] have detained dozens of young Kyrgyz men since June 2016."

The man was speaking to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, under condition of anonymity because he has relatives in China.

He says the young Kyrgyz men held in China did not appear to have broken any Chinese laws; they were taken away "for reasons such as having a Koran, growing a beard, going to prayers [at mosque], or having made the hajj."

According to this man and other ethnic Kyrgyz of China who spoke with Azattyk and Radio Free Asia (RFA), these "violations" are now sufficient grounds to imprison people, in some cases for up to 17 years.

RFA spoke with a Kyrgyz businessman from Xinjiang who is now living in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. He noted the "persecution of Uyghurs by the Chinese government is by far the worst [in China]," but "the same kind of persecution is increasingly happening to the [ethnic] Kyrgyz people as well."

Like the "oralmans" of Kazakhstan, who were mentioned in that earlier Qishloq Ovozi report, ethnic Kyrgyz from China -- most of whom live in the Kyzylsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture that borders Kyrgyzstan -- are welcome to move to Kyrgyzstan and obtain citizenship. The Kyrgyz word for such people is "kairylman."

There are slightly more than 200,000 ethnic Kyrgyz in China, so the number of "repatriates" to Kyrgyzstan is far lower than the number moving from China to Kazakhstan. But the kairlymans have the same problem Kazakhstan's oralmans are having; they sometimes disappear when they cross back into China to see relatives.

It happened in April to 34-year-old Turdakun Abylet, who moved to Kyrgyzstan in 2015 and received citizenship on October 25.

His friend, Muslihiddin Salimov, lives in Bishkek. He tells Azattyk that Abylet went to China in April and was apparently detained at the border. Salimov says no one can tell him what happened to Abylet after that.

Salimov tried calling Abylet's relatives in Xinjiang but he says they were too frightened to answer any questions. "I couldn't find out if he arrived or not, or was detained or not. They wouldn't tell me anything," he said.

Salimov appealed to Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry and Interior Ministry for help in obtaining information about his friend. Eventually Salimov found out that Abylet had been detained for not properly rescinding his Chinese citizenship before he left for Kyrgyzstan.

Since Abylet is still technically a Chinese citizen, according to the Chinese authorities, there appears to be nothing Kyrgyzstan's government can do to have him freed and returned to Kyrgyzstan even though he is a Kyrgyz citizen.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (left) meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Like other Central Asian leaders, he won't threaten key economic ties over ethnic brethren.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (left) meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Like other Central Asian leaders, he won't threaten key economic ties over ethnic brethren.

And it's not only kairlymans. According to the businessman who spoke to RFA, "Nearly 100 Kyrgyz students from Kyzylsu [Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture in China] who are studying in Kyrgyzstan were detained upon their return to China during the summer vacation."

Many -- perhaps most -- of these Kyrgyz detained in China are sent to the "political education" camps that are appearing throughout Xinjiang.

The Chinese government has enjoyed excellent ties with the governments of the neighboring Central Asian states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- since the mid-1990s.

The economic situation in all three of those countries would be far worse without the huge investments and loans China has pumped into Central Asia since the late 1990s, as well as the jobs -- albeit many of them temporary -- that Chinese companies have provided for locals on road, railway, power line, pipeline, and other Chinese-funded projects.

But that has not endeared China to the people of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

The people of these three countries see China as a giant that is hungry for their natural resources and their land, while at the same time sending ever more Chinese workers to Central Asia to join in building these road, rail, power line, and pipeline projects, as well as Chinese merchants who take up stalls in Central Asian bazaars.

And Beijing is clearly taking a new view regarding its ties with Central Asia.

Citizens of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have joined the same Islamic extremist groups that some Uyghurs from Xinjiang have joined. And there is a greater opportunity to practice religion, specifically Islam, in Central Asia than there is in Xinjiang.

That perhaps explains, at least partially, why the Chinese government views Kazakhs and Kyrgyz who moved out of China with suspicion when they return for visits.

The economic ties that bind Central Asia and China are too important for all of those governments to allow relations to be affected by China's campaign against Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang.

But interaction among Central Asians with Chinese appears to be on the wane and, inevitably, news of what's happening to the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in China will reach the general populations in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, likely causing further damage to their impressions of China.

Azattyk Director Venera Djumataeva contributed to this report. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev and opposition politician Omurbek Tekebaev may not have been best friends but there did not appear to be any great animosity between them until early 2016. (file photo)

A Kyrgyz court's conviction of the opposition Ata-Meken (Fatherland) party's leader, Omurbek Tekebaev, on August 16 will likely prove to be more than a little stain on Kyrgyzstan's reputation --it will forever scar what should have been one of the country's finest moments when Kyrgyzstan holds its presidential election later this year.

Tekebaev planned on being a candidate in that election.

The fact that Tekebaev was unlikely to win that election makes the conviction and subsequent prison sentence for bribe-taking less understandable, especially in light of claims that the charges were political retribution.

President Almazbek Atambaev is constitutionally obligated to leave office when his term ends this year.

This makes Kyrgyzstan's upcoming presidential election a significant moment not only for Kyrgyzstan, but for Central Asia, because it will mark the first change of a president that was not the result of a death or a revolution.

Atambaev was elected in 2011 and took over from interim President Roza Otunbaeva, but the 2011 presidential election was a result of the 2010 revolution that ousted former President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

Atambaev and Tekebaev were part of Otunbaeva's interim government.

Atambaev and Tekebaev may not have been best friends but there did not appear to be any great animosity between the two until early 2016, when Atambaev started talking about making changes to the constitution that was adopted in 2010 shortly after Bakiev's ouster.

Tekebaev was one of the architects of that constitution and he opposed making any changes, pointing out that it was agreed there would be no amendments to the document until 2020.

Atambaev pushed through a referendum on amendments to the constitution, which was conducted on December 11, 2016, but the peace between the president and Tekebaev was broken.

Tekebaev, who was already speculating publicly about Atambaev's motives for changing the constitution, started questioning the sources of Atambaev's money.

Atambaev was a businessman before seriously turning to politics and Tekebaev set out to trace Atambaev's business connections, clearly with the intention of uncovering something that would tarnish his image.

Sketchy Evidence

In February, Tekebaev traveled abroad to hunt for information about Atambaev's business dealings in Turkey.

He was detained upon his return to Kyrgyzstan on February 26 with what Tekebaev claimed was evidence of Atambaev's illegal financial activities.

Officials at the Turkish Embassy in Bishkek claimed the documents Tekebaev brought back were fake but Tekebaev was held as an investigation into his alleged illegal financial activities was launched.

A Russian businessman named Leonid Maevsky posted a video on the Internet at the start of 2017 in which he claimed Tekebaev had cheated him out of $1 million in 2010 in an alleged deal for stakes in Kyrgyzstan's largest mobile operator, MegaCom.

Kyrgyz Opposition Leader Jailed For Eight Years
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The timing of the charges was suspect since more than six years had elapsed since the alleged deal but Maevsky's assertion was sufficient for Kyrgyz prosecutors to launch a case against Tekebaev that would eventually involve another Ata-Meken member; former Emergency Situations Minister and ex-Ambassador to South Korea Duyshenkul Chotonov.

The trial process dragged on for months until the August 16 ruling.

Evidence was often sketchy. At one point Maevsky said many of the documents he had that supported his claims had been damaged by the sprinkler system in his office when a fire broke out.

Mercurial Politician

Some see Tekebaev's conviction as the result of the mercurial politician's reputation.

Tekebaev became politically active in the 1980s, when Kyrgyzstan was still a Soviet republic.

Tekebaev, a physics teacher then, became a social activist in his native Bazar-Korgon district in southern Kyrgyzstan, demanding that children not be sent to the fields to pick cotton, among other things.

These modest beginnings helped launch Tekebaev's political career and by 1990 he was a people's deputy in the Supreme Soviet of the Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic.

Tekebaev founded the Ata-Meken party in 1992.

He ran unsuccessfully for president in 1995 and 2000. In 2005 he was elected speaker of parliament and quickly became one of the most vocal critics of then-President Bakiev.

There was probably no chance Tekebaev would cease looking for "kompromat" against Atambaev, but all the same, Tekebaev's conviction appears to be politically motivated in the eyes of many.

Even Tekebaev's sentence is intriguing.

He was sentenced to eight years in prison but will end up serving 4 1/2 with an additional stipulation that he cannot run for political office for a further three years after he is released from prison.

That effectively bars him from running in the presidential election that should take place in 2023, meaning it would be 2029 before he could run for president again.

He would be 70 years old by that time.

Casting A Shadow

The fortunes of his Ata-Meken party are also now in doubt.

Amendments to the election laws that were just passed at the end of June raised the percentage of votes a political party must receive to get seats in parliament from seven percent to nine percent.

Ata-Meken received 7.72 percent in the 2015 parliamentary elections.

With Tekebaev and Chotonov in prison, possibly to be joined soon by other Ata-Meken members who are currently on trial, the party's chances in 2020 are greatly reduced.

Tekebaev's incarceration might be a relief for President Atambaev and help ease any concerns he may have had that Tekebaev would hound him even after he steps down as president.

But Tekebaev's imprisonment will be forever linked with the 2017 presidential election and cast a shadow over assertions that it was a free and fair election, or an example of Kyrgyzstan's progress toward democracy.

RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service Director Venera Djumataeva contributed to this report.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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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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