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Wednesday 5 June 2019

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Aiman Omarova (left) believes her dog was killed as a warning. (file photo)

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- A prominent Kazakh human rights lawyer who aided a woman who helped expose "reeducation camps" for Muslims in neighboring China says she believes her dog was poisoned in a fatal attack meant to frighten her.

Aiman Omarova, who also represents victims of sexual abuse and was a recipient of the U.S. State Department's International Women of Courage Award for 2018, said that she found her dog dead in the backyard of her home in Almaty early on June 5.

The dog was 5 years old and had been in good health, Omaraova said, adding that he was a friendly pet and that she had never had any trouble with neighbors over him.

"Most likely, my dog was poisoned. And I am confident that it is because of my professional activities," said Omarova, who filed a complaint with the police.

She said that earlier this year somebody had hung a dead cat on the gate of her home in what she believes was meant as a warning.

Omarova specializes in seeking justice for victims of sexual abuse, mainly women and children, and also represents people who believe they are being prosecuted for political reasons or to stifle dissent in tightly controlled Kazakhstan.

Her dog's death came shortly after she helped Sairagul Sauytbay, who fled China in 2018, leave Kazakhstan for Sweden after Kazakh authorities refused to give her political asylum.

At a trial in Kazakhstan on charges of illegal border crossing, she testified that thousands of ethnic Kazakhs, Uyghurs, and other Muslims in China's Xinjiang province were undergoing "political indoctrination" in a network of "reeducation camps."

Revelations from Sauytbay and others have created diplomatic difficulties for energy-rich Kazakhstan, which is holding a snap presidential election on June 9 after the resignation of longtime leader Nursultan Nazarbaev, in its relationship with China.

Locals remonstrate with an official in Chuvashia over plans to open a Chinese-owned dairy facility in the area.

For years, villagers in Krasnaya Gorka in Russia's Chuvashia region grazed cattle and sowed seed in the fields managed by Valentina Yegorova, herself a struggling farmer.

That all came to an end in 2016, when local authorities reclaimed some of the leased land. Officials assured Yegorova that a vegetable-processing plant offering jobs to locals would be built on her 100 hectares.

But as it turns out, an entity founded by the head of Chuvashia will lease the land to Chinese investors to build a dairy farm that locals in the Tsivilsky district town say is scant on details.

"We learned about this by accident -- reading about it on the Internet. We were all shocked of course," says Tatyana Alekseyeva, an ethnic Chuvash.

From Africa to Central Asia, China has aggressively pursued investment opportunities. Officials have largely welcomed them, but the public in many cases is wary if not outright hostile to the new Chinese guests, faulting them, among other things, for importing Chinese labor rather than hiring locals.

Kazakhstan witnessed protests across the country in 2016 against a proposed law rumored to allow foreigners to own Kazakh land; namely, the Chinese. Kyrgyzstan has also been the site of anti-Chinese protests.

In Russia, Chinese investment is "growing," according to Michael Eric Lambert, the founder of the Black Sea Institute.

And that Chinese investment is crucial for Russia, Lambert says.

Situation 'Heating Up'

In Chuvashia, the Chinese investors first pitched their dairy farm plans to the village of Yekhvetkasy in the Morgausky district. Officials may have been convinced, but many citizens weren't. Protests ultimately convinced local officials in March to back out of the project.

Dejected but not deterred, the Chinese were offered what local officials said was fallow land in Krasnaya Gorka.

Chuvashia
Chuvashia

On May 23, a high-ranking Chinese delegation visited Chuvashia. That same day, Boris Markov, the head of the department for agro-industrial development and municipal property of the Tsivilsky district of Chuvashia, confirmed the lease of land to Chinese investors.

According to Igor Molyakov, a member of the Just Russia party and a deputy of the State Council of Chuvashia, the situation in the Tsivilsky district is heating up just as it did earlier in the Morgausky district.

On May 28, residents of Tsivilsky district met to discuss their reservations and/or opposition to the project. Regional officials have insisted that the land parcel designated for the Chinese investors was not seized from private citizens and had lain fallow as local farmers expressed little if any interest in cultivating it.

New Plant, New Jobs?

However, Yegorova, backed by the villagers, said 100 hectares of the land earmarked for the Chinese dairy farm belonged to her under a 25-year lease.

She said back in 2016, local authorities essentially forced her to nullify part of her lease, ceding control of 100 hectares of the land she managed and leaving her holding 189 hectares.

"They told me that the land was being taken for a regional vegetable-processing plant. The head of the department for agro-industrial development and municipal property of the Tsivilsky district, Boris Markov, visited me many times. They tried to persuade me, scare me, saying I would have problems [if she did not agree to sell.] I had no choice but to sign the documents," Yegorova recalls.

A Chinese official tries to make a case for the investment to a concerned local.
A Chinese official tries to make a case for the investment to a concerned local.

She says that villagers had been making use of the land, growing crops and grazing cattle.

"They sowed grain and cattle grazed there, too. There were then 70 head of cattle and now it had to be reduced to 52 heads because there's nowhere for them to graze. Every year, it is harder for us farmers," Yegorova explains.

Yegorova claims officials lied to her all along about what they planned to do with the land.

"They promised that it would be a vegetable processing plant and that there would be work for our people. And then it became known that the land was handed over to the company 'Development' that will sell or lease it to Chinese farmers,” Yegorova recounts.

The general director of the Development Ltd. Is Maksim Semenov. The company is fully owned by the Corporation for the Development of the Chuvashia Republic. According to Invest Chuvashia, the corporation was founded by Mikhail Ignatiyev, the regional head of Chuvashia.

While locals in Krasnaya Gorka are far from pleased with the way local officials are handling the case, the Chinese have nothing but praise.

Chinese Ambassador to Russia Li Hui expressed his gratitude on May 29 for the warm welcome in Chuvashia of the government delegation and the desire to cooperate.

Not A Done Deal?

Molyakov explains that for the lease to be finalized the land in question will need to be first recategorized from agricultural to industrial. And, as part of that process, public hearings should be held.

And the public appears to be mobilizing. Opposition to the dairy plant is not limited to Krasnaya Gorka, but nearby villages are largely opposed. A petition against the project is being circulated in the area.

"Everything will depend on how the local residents defend their interests. The Chinese, of course, will be persuasive," Molyakov explains.

Although the details of the Chinese project have not been publicized, local Chuvashi officials have said it will mean local jobs.

Those reassurances, however, appear to ring hollow among the villagers in Chuvashia.

In other parts of Russia, especially the Far East, where Chinese investment is most prevalent, locals have hardly welcomed the Chinese with open arms.

Many blame the Chinese for failing to hire local labor, instead importing Chinese workers at higher wages, creating "China towns" with street signs in Mandarin and shops selling Chinese goods rather than Russian, according to analyst Paul Goble.

In Central Asia, Sinophobia is reportedly rising across the region, maybe nowhere more so than in Kazakhstan. Protests there in 2016 were sparked by rumors that foreigners -- read Chinese -- would be allowed to purchase land. Such was the near hysteria that Chinese Council to Kazakhstan Zhang Wei stated in February 2018 that China was not seeking hegemony there.

Why China is interested in agricultural projects is simple, explains Lambert.

"They are focusing on farming due to the geopolitics of China itself. It has 22 percent of the world population willing to consume like the West but lacking the land to produce enough food," Lambert says.

Back in Krasnaya Gorka, some residents fear the Chinese project could forever alter their community.

"We have a really friendly village, lots of kids, built a playground, collecting money from the whole village. And the nature we have here. People from the city come to the pond here," explains Alekseyeva.

"We're against the Chinese," she adds. "We don't need them."

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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