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Qishloq Ovozi

Ethnic Kazakhs pray in a mosque in the Chinese Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry has finally raised the issue of its missing new citizens with Chinese authorities.

For many months, some ethnic Kazakhs who took advantage of offers of "repatriation" from Kazakhstan's government and are now Kazakh citizens have crossed back into China, usually to the neighboring Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, as part of their business, or to visit relatives, or to take care of unfinished business, and then disappeared.

Reports suggest these Kazakh nationals were detained in China and sent to reeducation centers in Xinjiang, where authorities are said to have been sending thousands of Muslims -- mainly Uyghurs but later Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and even Hui, who are Chinese Muslims

Recently, some of the ethnic Kazakhs missing in China have returned to Kazakhstan. Qishloq Ovozi recounted one man's case, and later RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, reported on two other Kazakh men who were put in reeducation centers.

Kazakhstan has good reason to be cautious in its dealings with powerful neighbor China, not only because of its size and might but also because Beijing has invested billions of dollars into projects and businesses in Kazakhstan.

Radio Free Asia has reported on the incarceration of Xinjiang's Kazakhs in reeducation centers since 2017, including Kazakh citizens.

But Kazakhstan's government and media have largely avoided talking about its detained citizens in China. However, as some of these Kazakhs have returned to Kazakhstan, their stories have been reported by international media, making it difficult for Astana to ignore the issue.

Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov hardly put China's feet to the fire.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov hardly put China's feet to the fire.

Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry issued a statement on May 28 saying that "last week in Beijing" the latest "Kazakhstan-Chinese consultations on consular matters" took place. During these consultations, the two sides discussed the "protection of the rights and interests of the citizens of the two countries, and also the mutual trips of residents of Kazakhstan and China."

Then the most important part: "The question of the situation of ethnic Kazakhs, who have resettled from China to Kazakhstan and have become citizens of the Republic of Kazakhstan, was raised by the Kazakh side. An urgent request was expressed about an objective and fair review of affairs and the release of those ethnic Kazakhs detained in China who have dual citizenship."

The Kazakh delegation wasn't exactly holding the Chinese feet to the fire with that statement, but diplomacy is often a delicate art, especially when you represent a country of 18 million people in a conversation with representatives of a country with 1.4 billion people.

Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said on May 29 that he had information about some 170 ethnic Kazakhs "experiencing difficulties" in China. But he said that of those, only 12 were Kazakhs who had become citizens of Kazakhstan and nine of them were already back in Kazakhstan. He said the citizens of Kazakhstan who were detained "could not properly complete the documentation for revoking their Chinese citizenship and were detained."

The Kazakhs who got out of China confirmed they were originally taken into custody because Chinese authorities said they had not completed all the necessary procedures to cancel their Chinese citizenship and were therefore still considered citizens of China. However, as noted in previous reports, they were said to have then been put in centers where long daily lessons were given on the Chinese government's policies and devotion to the homeland.

Poking The Dragon

All this puts Kazakhstan's government in a difficult situation. The "oralman" program that invited ethnic Kazakhs to become citizens has added 1 million people to Kazakhstan's population, and, as important, these are all ethnic Kazakhs, something that has helped tilt the demographic balance in Kazakhstan in favor of the titular nationality. Kazakh officials might never have guessed in the early 1990s when they initiated the program that it could ever become a sore point in relations with its giant neighbor.

Furthermore, anti-Chinese sentiment appears to be growing in Kazakhstan. It started with an increasing number of Chinese workers arriving to participate in projects that China was helping to finance, but it exploded in spring 2016 when rumors spread that a new land law would allow Chinese citizens to buy land in Kazakhstan. Social tensions over hard economic times had been festering, and these rumors of alleged Chinese land ownership lit a fuse that set off the biggest protests Kazakhstan had seen since the late 1990s. The government calmed the situation by calling off the land-privatization plans.

But it did not alleviate anti-Chinese sentiment in Kazakhstan, and now Astana may well be approaching a pivotal moment in its relations with China. Attention to the detentions of ethnic Kazakhs in China is growing. It was also recently revealed that Kazakhstan's government had approved a three-day visa-free regime for Chinese nationals to visit Kazakhstan. The move elicited strong objections among Kazakhs on social media.

On May 31, the eve of International Children's Day, a group of some 20 Kazakh children whose parents are being kept in reeducation camps in Xinjiang were reportedly brought by their relatives to a press conference in Almaty, where they made a public appeal to Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to get their fathers out of detention in China.

Attending the press conference was Omirkhan Altyn, an ethnic Kazakh living in Germany. Altyn was among the first people to publicly raise the issue of the treatment of ethnic Kazakhs in China when he attended a world Kuriltai of the Kazakh diaspora in Astana in April 2017 and called on Nazarbaev to do something about the situation. At the May 31 press conference, Altyn said, "These children cannot celebrate as other children are [on International Children's Day]. Chinese authorities have put the parents of these children in detention, violating the rights of these children."

Treading A Fine Line

That was not the only press conference on this topic recently. On May 25, Uali Islam, an ethnic Kazakh from China who has been a citizen of Kazakhstan since 2017, appeared at a press conference in Almaty with his two children, appealing to authorities in Kazakhstan not to send his wife back to China.

Islam came to Kazakhstan in 2016, but his wife, Sayragul Sautybay, still hasn't completed all the steps necessary to emigrate. Now, she might never finish the process.

Sayragul Sautybay crossed into Kazakhstan illegally in April. Chinese authorities discovered this and contacted Kazakhstan requesting that Sautybay be detained and returned to China. Kazakh authorities did detain her on May 21, according to Islam, but she has not been extradited.

Kazakhstan has, over the course of around two decades, extradited several ethnic Uyghurs who were Chinese nationals to China, but Kazakhstan never appears to have deported an ethnic Kazakh to China.

The voices of "repatriate" Kazakhs in Kazakhstan are receiving a lot more attention in Kazakhstan lately. The responses from Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry and foreign minister show the government feels the need to prove it is addressing the issue.

But Kazakh authorities are walking a tightrope, seemingly trying to maintain good relations with China while preventing this issue from sparking unrest among Kazakhstan's population.

In Astana's favor, Kazakhstan sells oil, natural gas, and uranium to China, and Kazakhstan is a key country in Beijing's One Belt One Road global trade-network project, since railway links westward from China and to the Persian Gulf pass through Kazakhstan. It's seemingly in China's interests to somehow resolve this situation, at least with those ethnic Kazakhs who now have citizenship in Kazakhstan.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, contributed to this report. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
It's Raining Salt: Toxic Storm In Central Asia Sparks Health Fears
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Residents of Turkmenistan's northern Dashoguz Province are being sent back out into the fields, although this time they're neither sowing nor harvesting. They're trying to save the crops from withering.

High winds picked up dust and salt from the desiccated Aral Sea on May 26-27 and blew it all over northern and eastern Turkmenistan, as well as Uzbekistan's western Bukhara, Khorezm, and Navoi provinces and its Karakalpakstan Autonomous Republic.

Images captured after the storm resemble winter scenes of a light snowfall blanketing cars, roads, and vegetation. But it's salt, in some places a centimeter thick.

Eighty-year-old Temirbek bobo, a pensioner in Karakalpakstan, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, he had never seen anything like it.

He couldn't have. There's never been anything in the region like this salt storm. And unfortunately, it may well happen again.

A correspondent for RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, said authorities in Dashoguz were pressing "teachers and [other] state employees" out into the fields at daybreak on May 29 to remove as much of the salt as possible from fruits and vegetables, and wheat and cotton fields.

Evidence of the salt storm in Karakalpakstan
Evidence of the salt storm in Karakalpakstan

The only means they have is reportedly to wash it off, which cleans the crop but deposits the salt into the soil. The same is likely to be happening in Lebap Province.

There have been shortages of basic goods, notably flour, in Turkmenistan since autumn 2016. The country is experiencing its worst economic crisis since it became independent in late 1991. It may therefore lack the money to carry out the sort of decontamination work that the fields of Dashoguz and Lebap need to yield any kind of a decent harvest. But Turkmenistan also cannot afford to lose the crops in two of its five provinces.

Dashoguz was already in bad shape. The Alternative Turkmenistan News website reported in April that salt was accumulating on the surface of the ground there. This storm has compounded an existing problem.

But Turkmenistan's government also appears to be employing a default tactic when faced with a crisis: Don't talk about it. There has been no official acknowledgement of this freak storm or its negative effects, and no request for outside help. (Authorities in Turkmenistan have declared this an Era of Happiness. If there's never any bad news, there's never any reason to ask for help from abroad.)

But there is no reason to believe that Turkmen authorities bear responsibility for this dust-salt storm.

A Glimpse Of The Future?

It is the likely result of the environmental disaster that is the Aral Sea, located several hundred kilometers north of Turkmenistan along the Uzbek-Kazakh border. Seventy-five years ago, it was the fourth-largest saline lake in the world; but less than 10 percent of it remains, due in large part to the overuse of rivers that once fed the Aral Sea. In its place is a large area of alkaline soil and salt.

Kazakhstan has successfully stemmed the desiccation in its part of the Aral, but Uzbekistan's section continues to dry up.

The Central Asian states have vowed many times to work together to save the Aral Sea, most recently on March 15 at a Central Asian summit in Astana. But it continues to shrink. It's certainly a problem that all five countries share. Small amounts of salt from this latest storm reached all the way to Bishkek, in Kyrgyzstan, some 1,000 kilometers to the east.

Much of the Aral Sea once covered the area now called Karakalpakstan. People of that region suffer from an assortment of maladies that many blame on the ecological circumstances -- respiratory and diarrheal disease, for example, higher-than-normal maternal- and infant-mortality rates, and psychological problems associated with decreasing opportunities in an area that is becoming less habitable.

That might be the future for more areas in Central Asia. The storm was one of the clearest signs so far of what awaits the western regions of Central Asia if nothing is done to reverse the process of the drying Aral Sea. High winds are not new to this region, but salt storms are. This latest event suggests the desiccation of the Aral Sea has reached a point where the resulting salt can easily be whipped up by dust storms and dumped onto fields and orchards hundreds of kilometers away.

So Dashoguz marks a new phase in one of the first battles in a long war. Dashoguz is located in the northern part of the Karakum (Garagum) Desert. Agriculture there faces challenges at the best of times. With little water and temperatures already exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, the salt on and in the ground is going to take a toll on crops, leaving many in Turkmenistan hungrier.

It's Turkmenistan's problem today. But it will increasingly be one for all of Central Asia.

Azatlyk and Ozodlik 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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