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Qishloq Ovozi

A screengrab from a video purportedly showing young Uyghurs training somewhere in the Middle East and making threats against China. There seems to have been a crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs living in China since the film was released online.

Relations between Kazakhstan and China have been good for more than two decades now.

The two neighboring countries have what could easily be described as excellent economic ties, with trade between them totaling billions of dollars annually.

Recently, however, security concerns have crept into the Kazakh-Chinese relationship.

Chinese authorities have been waging a campaign against "separatists" in the western Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region for decades, and there have been a series of violent attacks recently in Xinjiang that authorities blame on the Uyghurs.

As the full title of the region's name suggests, the region now known as Xinjiang is the traditional homeland of the Uyghurs, a Turkic people that converted to Islam several centuries ago.

Some Uyghurs have been fighting an essentially nationalist campaign to avoid being swallowed up entirely by Han Chinese culture.

Sometime early this year, the Islamic State militant group posted a video of Uyghur fighters in Syria who made an assortment of threats against China.

It was not the first time Uyghur militants in the Middle East released a video threatening China, but on this occasion it certainly caught the attention of President Xi Jinping, who vowed on March 10 to build a "great wall of iron" to protect Xinjiang.

Chinese authorities had already imposed new regulations on the Uyghurs designed to break the Uyghurs' connection to Islam.

Except for the elderly, Uyghur men could not have beards; Uyghur women were banned from dressing in burqas; children under 18 were forbidden from attending mosque; and Chinese authorities made no provision for Ramadan, insisting that Uyghurs not fast during working hours and ordering Uyghur merchants to keep their shops open.

But those rash words of a handful of Uyghurs in Syria, caught on film and disseminated via the Internet, unleashed a fierce new crackdown on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Kazakh Diaspora

The Kazakhs are a Turkic Muslim people, and many Kazakhs live in China.

In fact, China is home to the largest Kazakh diaspora -- between 1.25 million and 1.5 million, most of whom live in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture and the Tarbaghatay (Tacheng) and Altay prefectures in the northern part of Xinjiang, bordering Kazakhstan.

The same restrictions Chinese authorities have imposed on the Uyghurs apply to the Kazakhs.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that, in early June, a popular Kazakh imam known simply as Akmet was detained in Xinjiang.

That came after a Kazakh imam named Okan was detained earlier this year, apparently for performing traditional Islamic prayers at a funeral.

Okan was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Akmet died while in police custody on the night of June 4.

Authorities said he hanged himself.

Local authorities started detaining Akmet's friends and by July RFA had reported that more than 100 of the imam's friends and classmates were in custody.

State Media Turns A Blind Eye

China has become such an important economic partner of Kazakhstan that authorities in Astana could be expected to be wary of information about Xinjiang reaching Kazakhstan's citizens.

Rumors in early 2016 that impending land reforms in Kazakhstan would give Chinese the right to purchase Kazakh land sparked the biggest protests Kazakhstan had seen in two decades.

So, China's moves against ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang have not been reported on in Kazakhstan's state media, although several small independent media outlets have carried information on it.

Long lines for visas at the Chinese consulate in Almaty suggest that Beijing is now keeping much closer tabs on Kazakhs traveling to and from Kazakhstan. (file photo)
Long lines for visas at the Chinese consulate in Almaty suggest that Beijing is now keeping much closer tabs on Kazakhs traveling to and from Kazakhstan. (file photo)

The Qazaq Times website, for example, posted an article on June 6 with the headline: "Why is Akorda [Kazakhstan's presidential palace] not interested in protecting the rights of the Chinese Kazakhs?"

The 7kun.kz website reported on a press conference some well-known Kazakh writers organized in June to call on Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to help ethnic Kazakhs in China.

The Kazakh government has been able to publicly avoid the issue of the treatment of China's Kazakhs, but Astana faces a more difficult task as the problem spreads to Kazakhstan.

Shortly after independence in 1991, Kazakhstan opened its doors to ethnic Kazakhs around the world, inviting them to return to their historic homeland and take up residence.

Kazakhstan is a large country with a small population and a demographic that, right after independence, showed the majority of people living in Kazakhstan were non-Kazakhs

In an effort to correct this, Kazakh authorities have repatriated some 1 million Kazakhs from other Central Asian states, Turkey, Russia, Mongolia, and from China.

They are called "oralman."

Unexplained Detentions

Some of the oralmans from China have been telling RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyk, that they and their relatives have been encountering difficulties with Chinese authorities recently.

Raushan, who only gave her first name, is an oralman who moved from China to Kazakhstan in 2005 and received citizenship in Kazakhstan in 2008.

Her husband, Omir Bekaly, 46, is also an oralman and he went to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, on March 23 on a business trip.

Bekaly attended the meetings in Urumqi then decided to go see his mother in Turfan and bring her back to Kazakhstan.

Bekaly disappeared and Raushan has not heard from him since.

Raushan was successful in contacting Bekaly's mother, who said he had been detained.

Azattyq contacted Bekaly's employers; the Akku tourist agency located in Almaty.

A representative named Fariza confirmed Bekaly was an employee, and that he had gone to China and was detained there, but there was no more information.

Raushan said she has appealed to Kazakh authorities to help find her husband in China, but so far without any success.

Another oralman, Berik, who asked not to use his last name for fear of reprisals against his relatives in China, said Chinese authorities started detaining oralmans in January.

That would be about the time IS posted the video with the Uyghur militants.

Berik recently made a trip to Xinjiang and said oralmans were often taken to "political education" centers and kept there for periods ranging from three days to several months.

Berik's and Raushan's accounts are supported by a leaked copy of a June 5 speech from Zhu Hailun, the deputy party secretary of Xinjiang.

'Propaganda Work'

Zhu said a new priority for regional officials is "dealing with the issue of Chinese nationals [...] in Kazakhstan."

Zhu also said, "We must also properly carry out propaganda work with the Chinese Kazakh population in Kazakhstan."

Azattyq has been reporting for months that now there are often problems for citizens of Kazakhstan to obtain visas to go to China, even for students who have been attending Chinese universities.

Kazakhstan's citizens, ethnic Kazakhs included, are not radicals.

However, a small number of Kazakhstan's citizens have gone to the Middle East and joined extremist groups and, generally, citizens of Kazakhstan are able to more freely practice Islam.

That seems to be enough to have convinced Chinese authorities that greater caution is warranted with the Kazakhs of Kazakhstan, especially with the Uyghurs and, now, the oralmans.

This new policy of Beijing will not help China's image in Kazakhstan.

But the Kazakh government, which does not exercise the same degree of control over the media that China's government does, will struggle to keep a lid on it. It's only a matter of time before what is happening to the ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang, and what is happening to Kazakhstan's oralmans, becomes common knowledge in Kazakhstan.

Galym Bokash, Ruslan Medelbek, and Nurtai Lakhanuly of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

CSTO Rift Grows Between Moscow And Astana

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbaev at a CSTO meeting in Moscow in 2012.

On June 22, Vladimir Shamanov, the head of the Russian State Duma's Committee on Defense, announced that Russian military officials were holding talks with their colleagues in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan about the potential deployment of Kazakh and Kyrgyz peacekeepers to Syria.

Even though Russian and Turkish officials were cautiously optimistic that Kazakhstan would agree to deploy troops to Syria, Kazakhstan's Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhamov swiftly denied Shamanov's statement, telling reporters on June 23 that "Kazakhstan is not negotiating with anyone about sending its military service personnel to Syria."

Kazakhstan's emphatic refusal to deploy peacekeepers to Syria contrasted markedly with Kyrgyzstan's openness to a potential deployment, and reveals a growing rift between Astana and Moscow over the mandate of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

While Russia has pushed the CSTO in an interventionist direction to bolster its international credibility as a peacekeeping force, Kazakhstan has argued that the CSTO should refrain from military involvement in the Syrian and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts. Astana's support for a hands-off CSTO can be explained by widespread internal opposition to Kazakh troop deployments in conflict zones and Kazakhstan's desire to assert its foreign policy independence from Russia.

Destabilization Fears


Kazakhstan's refusal to endorse Russia's CSTO military intervention proposal in Syria can be explained by President Nursultan Nazarbaev's concerns that deploying Kazakh troops in conflict zones would cause political instability in Kazakhstan.

Political opposition to Kazakh troop deployments in Syria would likely come from three principal sources: the Kazakh parliament (Mazhilis), Kazakh veterans groups, and Sunni religious leaders.

As public opposition to a CSTO military intervention resulting in Kazakh civilian casualties is so pervasive, Central Asia security expert Uran Botobekov argued in a recent Jamestown Foundation report that parliamentary resistance to military deployments in Syria was possible, even if Nazarbaev acquiesced to Russia's demands.

Although Nazarbaev's Nur Otan party overwhelmingly dominates the Kazakh parliament and can easily quash dissent, last year's anti-Chinese protests over Kazakh land-reform legislation revealed that disregarding public opinion has negative political consequences.

Therefore, deferring to public opinion on military deployments will prevent unrest in Kazakhstan and strengthen Nazarbaev's position by lending symbolic credibility to Astana's January 2017 constitutional reforms, which formally reduced the scope of Nazarbaev's presidential powers.

Afghan War Vets

In addition to the potential for public unrest facilitated by dissenting parliamentary factions, Astana's refusal to deploy troops to Russia's proposed CSTO mission in Syria can be explained by Nazarbaev's concerns about dissent from Kazakh veterans groups.

These concerns are relevant, as Kazakh veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan expressed virulent opposition to Kazakhstan's May 2011 decision to deploy troops alongside NATO's ISAF forces in Afghanistan.

Kazakh Afghan war veterans at a press conference in 2011.
Kazakh Afghan war veterans at a press conference in 2011.

In response to Kazakhstan's participation in the Afghanistan war, the Coordination Council of Public Organizations, which represents Kazakh war veterans, declared that the deployment of Kazakh troops to Afghanistan would endanger Kazakh civilians and cause irreconcilable rifts within Kazakhstan's Islamic community.

As Afghan war veterans openly called for the resignation of the Kazakh parliament in 2011, Nazarbaev's desire to prevent unrest amongst this group likely contributed to his decision not to deploy Kazakh troops to Syria.

Salafist Rumblings

Sunni Islamist organizations are the third major opposing faction to Kazakhstan's participation in a CSTO military intervention in Syria.

Cooperation with Russia would overtly align Astana with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's Alawi Shi'ite regime. As Sunni extremists in southern Kazakhstan, like Marat Maulenov, have urged Kazakh Islamists to join the struggle against Assad in Syria, Nazarbaev was concerned that sending Kazakh troops to Syria on Assad's behalf could trigger a counterdeployment of Kazakh Sunni extremists to IS-held regions of Syria.

This retaliatory counterdeployment could empower underground Salafist movements in Kazakhstan, and increase the likelihood of Syria-linked ISIS terror attacks on Kazakh soil.

Foreign Policy Independence

In addition to the political instabilities that could have resulted from deploying troops to Syria, Kazakhstan's tensions with Russia over the CSTO's mandate underscore Nazarbaev's desire to showcase Astana's foreign policy independence from Moscow.

Kazakhstan's responses to regional security crises have consistently emphasized the importance of all-inclusive political settlements and called for a neutral CSTO. This approach differs greatly from Russia's attempts to link the CSTO's mandate to its broader geopolitical interests.

One of the areas where Kazakhstan has shown its independence has been in hosting Syria peace talks in Astana. (file photo)
One of the areas where Kazakhstan has shown its independence has been in hosting Syria peace talks in Astana. (file photo)

Kazakhstan's approach to CSTO involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh exemplifies Astana's divergence from Russia on the CSTO's mission.

On July 14, Kazakhstan's ambassador to Armenia, Timur Urazaev, stated that the CSTO should refrain from intervening militarily in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Instead of using force, Urazaev argued that the international community should resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by facilitating diplomatic negotiations between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Kazakhstan's strategy contrasts markedly with Russia's stance on Nagorno-Karabakh, which has consistently emphasized the CSTO's commitment to protecting Armenia's sovereignty from Azerbaijani military aggression.

Canceled Visit

Kazakhstan's resistance to CSTO involvement on Armenia's behalf is closely intertwined with its membership in the Turkic Council, an organization that includes Azerbaijan. As journalist Areg Galstyan noted in March, Kazakhstan frequently lobbies for pro-Azerbaijani interests within the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and successfully convinced Russia to move the location of the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council from Armenia to Russia.

Kazakhstan's solidarity with Azerbaijan could also explain Nazarbaev's decision to cancel his visit to Armenia for the October 2016 CSTO meeting. Even though Nazarbaev explained his absence on health grounds, Kazakh political analyst Aidos Sarym told the Reuters news agency on October 11, that Nazarbaev's "illness" was an excuse to avoid meeting with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian.

Urazaev's statement suggests that Kazakhstan's resistance to the Russia-Armenia alliance has extended to the security sphere, and illustrates how Kazakh policymakers are using their disagreement with Russia over the CSTO's mandate to assert Astana's foreign policy independence from Moscow.

Syria Mediation

Kazakhstan's refusal to deploy troops in a CSTO military campaign on Assad's behalf can also be explained by Astana's desire to demonstrate its outsized influence in world affairs. Even though Kazakhstan maintains diplomatic relations with Syria's Ba'athist regime, Nazarbaev has deviated from Russia's staunch pro-Assad approach by highlighting Astana's role as a neutral mediator in the Syrian conflict.

Since the inception of Russia's military intervention in Syria in September 2015, Kazakhstan has abstained from voting in UN Security Council resolutions condemning the Assad regime's chemical weapons use and established robust diplomatic links with Syrian opposition factions.

If Kazakhstan had contributed to Russia's proposed CSTO peacekeeping mission in Syria, its reputation as a diplomatic arbiter in Syria would have been irreparably compromised and the impartiality of the Astana talks would have been seriously questioned.

However, by openly resisting Russia's proposed CSTO military intervention in Syria on Assad's behalf, Kazakhstan can showcase its effectiveness as a mediator in the Syrian conflict, bolstering Nazarbaev's stature in the international community.

Even though Kazakhstan remains a critical Russian security partner, Nazarbaev's support for a non-interventionist CSTO reveals a growing rift between Astana and Moscow on how best to handle international crises.

As Kazakhstan's refusal to deploy troops in CSTO peacekeeping missions helps prevent antigovernment unrest, and highlights Kazakhstan's foreign policy independence from Russia, the Moscow-Astana rift over the CSTO is likely to be an enduring feature of the bilateral relationship for years to come.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to The Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and Diplomat magazine. He can be followed on Twitter and on Facebook.
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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