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Beijing has cracked down on Xinjiang's Muslims, closing down mosques, greatly restricting religious practices, banning clothing deemed to be in some way Islamic, banning beards for all but elderly men.

"They taught [us]...not to be Muslims."

Thirty-year-old Kayrat Samarkan is an ethnic Kazakh from China. He has just received citizenship in Kazakhstan, after living there since May 2009. But he almost didn't make it.

On February 15, Samarkan was released from a "reeducation" facility in China's western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Beijing's reeducation campaign has been under way in Xinjiang for many months, and targets mainly the Turkic Muslim peoples whose ancestors inhabited the area for many centuries.

U.S. acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Laura Stone said in Beijing on April 18 that the number of people detained in Xinjiang and sent to reeducation centers was "at the very least in the tens of thousands."

The campaign initially targeted Uyghurs, the largest Muslim group living in Xinjiang, but later Chinese authorities included other Muslim peoples: Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and even Dungans (who are actually ethnic Chinese Muslims).

Samarkan has told RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, that he returned to Xinjiang in October 2017 to sell his home and land there. The police in Samarkan's native Buryltogay district called him in for questioning.

"They asked me: 'What kind of work do you do in Kazakhstan? Who is there with you? Do you attend Namaz?'" Samarkan says. "They questioned me for three days they didn't give me a chance to sleep."

'Political Education'

The police detained him and ordered him sent to a reeducation facility for three to nine months, and four days after he first appeared at the police station he was transferred to the "center for political education" in the Buryltogay district.

"They took my clothes and brought me in handcuffs and leg shackles to my cell," he says. "There, they shaved my head."

Samarkan says there were three categories of prisoners at the facility. "The first category was people connected to religion; the second was those who had gone abroad; the third were those who had violated social order." He was detained for being part of categories two and three.

The lessons began.

"They taught us to keep safe the domestic secrets of the People's Republic of China, not to divide peoples by nationality, not to divulge [information] about the internal affairs of China, not to be a Muslim," Samarkan recalls. Inmates also studied the text from the XIX Communist Party Congress that China held in October 2017.

Samarkan says inmates had to pay for food rations -- 20 yuan (about $3.15) per day -- for "two pieces of bread and watery rice."

He says he thinks there were some 5,700 inmates in the facility where he was kept. "Among them, more than 3,000 were Kazakhs, 2,000 were Uyghurs, and 200 were Dungans," he estimates.

Can't Leave China Behind

Samarkan says there were two other Kazakhs there who had emigrated to Kazakhstan and were detained when they returned to Xinjiang for what they thought would be brief visits. One was serving a four-year sentence in the reeducation facility, the other a seven-year sentence.

This has been a problem for some of the "Oralman," ethnic Kazakhs living outside Kazakhstan but invited by the Kazakh government to come to their "homeland." More than 1 million have done so, and the largest number came from China.

However, according to Chinese authorities, some did not complete all the paperwork needed to officially renounce Chinese citizenship, which leaves them open to arrest and confinement when they return to Xinjiang on business, to visit family, or, as in Samarkan's case, to settle unfinished matters back in Xinjiang.

Samarkan tells Azattyq he was so despondent that he contemplated suicide. He started beating his head against the wall to convince his captors he was psychologically unwell. One day in February when he was standing in line with other inmates, he said his legs just weakened and he fell, striking his head on a wall. He lost consciousness for about 15 minutes and was taken to a hospital.

He was freed after that but told not to leave China. When he pleaded that his wife and child were in Kazakhstan, the authorities agreed he could return to Kazakhstan for one month.

"As soon as I got to Kazakhstan I received citizenship, since my waiting period [for citizenship] had just finished," Samarkan says.

Azattyq attempted to contact the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan for comment on Samarkan's story and the existence of reeducation facilities in Xinjiang, but those calls went unanswered.

Kazakh authorities are aware of problems for Oralmans in Xinjiang. Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov sent a diplomatic note to the Chinese Foreign Ministry in February 15, the same day Samarkan was freed from custody.

Kazakh First Deputy Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi just visited Xinjiang on April 17 to 19 to meet with officials there.

China's fears don't appear to be figments of the imagination. Uyghur militants in the Middle East have released videos threatening bloodshed in China. And as militant groups there continue to lose territory to the wide array of international forces that have massed in Syria and Iraq, some of these Uyghurs now seem to be in Afghanistan.

China has boosted its cooperation with the Afghan and Tajik governments in an effort to prevent these Uyghur militants from returning to China. And Beijing has cracked down on Xinjiang's Muslims, closing down mosques, greatly restricting religious practices, banning clothing deemed to be in some way Islamic, banning beards for all but elderly men.

The ripples from the campaign in Xinjiang are increasingly felt in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where Sinophobia has already been increasing in recent years. Azattyq just reported on rising Sinophobia in Kazakhstan, and tales such as the one Samarkan tells are only going to fuel this sentiment.

Based on reporting by Azattyk's Nurtai Lakhanuly. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (left) with his Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoev while on an official visit to Uzbekistan earlier this week.

As if Turkmenistan didn't already have an image problem, it must now contend with neighboring Uzbekistan changing its policies and earning cautious but consistent praise from the global community and renewed interest from international companies and investors.

More concerning for Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov is how Uzbekistan is achieving such a turnaround.

Berdymukhammedov visited Tashkent on April 23-24, the first time he had visited Uzbekistan's capital since March 2008.

That time, he was going to meet with then-Uzbek leader Islam Karimov. The late President Karimov and Turkmenistan's first president, the late Saparmurat Niyazov, really have helped define the image of a Central Asian dictator in the post-Soviet period.

This time, Berdymukhammedov went to meet with Uzbekistan's relatively new president, Shavkat Mirziyoev.

Mirziyoev is not the internationally criticized, iron-fisted ruler Karimov was. Mirziyoev is implementing administrative, economic, and foreign policy reforms that have attracted the attention of countries in the region, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and in East Asia, Europe, and the United States.

It's a really awkward example for Berdymukhammedov's Turkmenistan.

Different Paths

When Karimov was publicly declared dead on September 2, 2016, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were very similar in their styles of rule.

Uzbekistan was increasingly isolationist; Turkmenistan had been an isolationist country for decades.

In both countries, there was a heavy internal security-force presence; the slightest hint of opposition was quickly eliminated. Thousands languished in prisons, with international rights organizations claiming that many were tortured into making confessions and condemned at unfair trials without access to proper legal representation.

Uzbekistan's economy was in bad shape, but so was Turkmenistan's at the time of Karimov's death.

Soon after Mirziyoev came to power in September 2016, the changes started in Uzbekistan. Some long-imprisoned political and rights activists and independent journalists were released.

Turkmenistan has not released any of its imprisoned activists or political opponents in that time, though information surfaced in August 2017 suggesting that Niyazov's security chief, Akmurad Rejepov, had died in prison after being confined there 10 years earlier.

Mirziyoev's government is also experimenting with loosening controls over Uzbek media. Some abusive and/or corrupt local officials have been exposed due to greater latitude for outlets and journalists, though top officials and current government policies still seem to be a step too far.

Turkmen media looks much as it has for nearly all its more than 26 years of independence. The president is everywhere and everything is great, according to state media.

Mirziyoev has purged and reorganized the Prosecutor-General's Office, Interior Ministry, and, most of all, the feared National Security Committee. In all three cases, Mirziyoev has promised that abuses of the past will no longer be tolerated and officials will be held accountable for misdeeds toward citizens.

Turkmenistan has continued its long-standing policy of regularly shuffling officials without any meaningful results coming from these personnel changes.

Uzbek authorities are talking about scrapping the odious exit visa for citizens, possibly by 2019.

In Turkmenistan, citizens with tickets to international flights are being turned away at Turkmen airports.*

Uzbekistan implemented a badly needed currency devaluation in September 2017, dropping the national currency's exchange rate dramatically to bring it into line with the black-market rate, seen as the more genuine exchange rate.

Turkmenistan has stubbornly resisted currency devaluation since it implemented two devaluations at the start of 2015, dropping the value of the manat by some 23 percent. The manat’s official rate is 3.5 to $1 while the black market rate is currently more than 16 manats.

Improving Ties

Mirziyoev's greatest success to date has been improving Uzbekistan's foreign ties generally; but in Central Asia in particular. Uzbekistan's relations with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have improved dramatically since Mirziyoev took power.

Uzbek ties with Turkmenistan are better, too, but they were already good when Mirziyoev became leader -- and Mirziyoev's first official visit as Uzbekistan's elected president was to Turkmenistan in March 2017.

Mirziyoev was also instrumental in helping to convene the first Central Asian summit in nearly 20 years in Astana, Kazakhstan, on March 15, 2018.

Berdymukhammedov did not attend. He went to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates instead.

Uzbekistan has opened its doors to foreign investors, urging them to come and set up shop in Uzbekistan. It appears to be showing signs of working, as Uzbek authorities have been in talks with ExxonMobil, for example, and there is seemingly increased interest from Russian companies.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) opened an office in Tashkent on November 8, the same day that Uzbekistan's State Investment Committee said foreign investment since the start of 2017 amounted to more than $4 billion.

Vanity Projects

Turkmenistan has been hunting for foreign investment but has not offered any of the greatly coveted onshore contracts for hydrocarbon fields that so far only the China National Petroleum Corp can claim to have.

Turkmenistan's fondness for the construction of white marble buildings, and other vanity projects, is enough to give would-be foreign investors pause; but Turkish company Polimeks and Belarusian company Belgorkhimprom claim Turkmen authorities owe them hundreds of millions of dollars for work done in Turkmenistan and other companies have smaller financial claims.

Turkmenistan is in a dire economic crisis at the moment. The government had to scrap subsidies for water, gas, and electricity that the public had been receiving since the early 1990s; there are reported shortages of basic foods; unemployment could be as high as 60 percent; banks are barely functioning; and hard currency is almost impossible to get.

Berdymukhammedov does not appear to have any easy path to getting out of this financial mess anytime soon without drastically changing policies he has pursued since becoming Turkmenistan's leader at the end of 2006.

Berdymukhammedov has shown no inclination to change his policies, so Turkmenistan is likely to continue to be run as it has been and the economic woes are likely to continue to multiply.

But Uzbekistan has started to turn itself around and is now creeping forward.

And all it took was a change in policies, and a change in leadership.

*CORRECTION: This article has been amended to remove mention of passengers being blocked from traveling abroad by train from Turkmenistan. There is no longer any international passenger rail service in the country.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views 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. Content will draw 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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