Erkin Azal, a middle-aged bus driver, can be seen in downtown Almaty every morning. He starts his shift at 5 am, working Route 201, driving an ageing bus through the city center. With his grey uniform jacket, he looks just like hundreds of other city bus drivers.
But Azal and his family are not native Kazahks; they are Uighurs, hailing from neighboring China’s Xinjiang province. Azal’s parents moved to Soviet Kazakhstan in the 1980s when the border was partly re-opened after “the big split” between China and the USSR in the 1960s and 1970s healed.
After a 10-hour shift, Azal commutes back to Askelen, a suburb west of the city. It’s a quiet neighborhood with rows of look-alike three-storey apartment blocks and private houses. What makes it special is its overwhelmingly Uighur population.
In Askelen, Uighur houses – with flat roofs used for drying grains and fruits, low beds made of bricks for heating, and wall carpets used for decoration – are common. Here, despite his hard job and low pay, Azal feels he’s better off than his Uighur kin in China.
Amid ongoing political repression in Xinjiang and an influx of Han Chinese, many Xinjiang Uighurs are reaching out to their relatives across the border, for Azal is not alone in a foreign land – thousands of Uighurs ply their trade or labor in Central Asian cities. Azal’s brother is a merchant in the Uighur market in Bishkek, Krygyzstan, 235 kilometers away; his cousin runs a Uighur restaurant nearby.
The Uighur cluster in Bishkek’s “East-5” district is one of the major centers for the Uighur diaspora, its free-wheeling spirit and Uighur-centered commerce an inspiration for Uighurs in China.
But these Uighur districts are not only about business, traditions and cultural bonds. Political aspirations swirl amid cross-border efforts to support kin and compatriots.
The Uighur are a Turkic people who trace their origins back to nomads who lived in Siberia many centuries ago. Uighur literally means “united” or “allied.” For centuries, the Uighur inhabited towns and oases along the Silk Road and worked cross-desert caravans transporting Chinese goods, making them mediators between east and west. Traditionally, shepherds and oasis farmers, nowadays these Hanfite Muslims are also involved in manufacturing, mining and trading.
Most live in Xinjiang, northwest China, but large ethnic Uighur communities also exist in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
The Kazakh Uighurs
The Uighurs in Kazakhstan, over 200,000 strong, have substantive political clout.
In the late 19th century, there were some 56,000 Uighurs in Kazakhstan but in the 1950s and 1960s, ethnic tensions and repressions in China led to a mass exodus to Soviet Kazakhstan. After the Sino-Soviet border conflict in 1969, Beijing closed the Xinjiang–Kazakh border, only reopening it in the late 1980s. The latest Uighur migrants are known as Kitalik (from the Russian/Kazakh Kitai, or China); many of them fled from the suppression of Uighur nationalist demonstrations in Xinjiang.
Nowadays, Kazakhstan also serves as a transit point for Uighur migration to the West: Most Uighurs in the US and Canada come from Central Asia, not China.
The Kazakh government has supported many Uighur cultural and political activities. It sponsored 64 Uighur schools, and allowed Uighur newspapers, despite their often anti-Chinese leanings. Uighurs quickly revived traditional practices lost by earlier migrants – for example the Meshrep movement in Kazakhstan, which aimed to reinforce religious mores and to unify Uighur peoples. That movement turned out to be so popular and strong that it was swiftly banned over the border by Xinjiang authorities.
It is this which makes both Nur-sultan and Beijing wary about the Kazakh Uighurs: Their connection to their “brothers” across the border. Beijing considers them a destabilizing factor that provokes Xinjiang Uighurs to challenge Beijing’s rule.
Uighurs in Central Asia often hold media events drawing attention to the plight of their compatriots in China, especially to the political re-education camps that, according to Human Rights Watch, hold some 1 million people. Local activists strongly condemn the so-called “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism” in Xinjiang and have held anti-Chinese rallies and mass prayers.
These activities put Kazakh officials in a delicate situation – trying to accommodate the grievances of Uighurs while staying on good terms with Beijing.
“Kazakhstan has good reasons 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,” says Igor Sidorov, a Russian political observer, based in Almaty. “When you represent a country of 18 million people in a dialogue with representatives of a country with 1.4 billion people, then you need to careful.”
Nur-Sultan is increasingly in tune with Beijing on the Uighurs, especially after President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s official September visit to China. Over the past decade, Chinese firms have poured billions into various Kazakh industries, including energy, infrastructure, and petrochemicals, and Kazakhstan is a key location for Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative.” In return, Kazakhstan has boosted oil and natural gas exports, and also exports uranium to China.
Moreover, China is home to the largest Kazakh diaspora with about 1.5 million Kazakhs in northern Xinjiang.
As a result, local Uighurs have endured harder times since 2010: anti-Uighur pogroms and nationalist attacks by Kazakhs. This has happened as Kazakh authorities, in unison with Beijing, toughened their stance against Uighur separatism. In 2011, a Uighur teacher in Kazakhstan was deported to China on terrorist charges, and in the last two years Nur-Sultan has extradited several ethnic Uighur activists to China.
Uighurs among the Kyrgyzs
What worries Beijing more is less the Kazakh border, more the porous China borders with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Unlike the well-protected and patrolled Kazakh frontier, those borders are mountainous and have already been crossed by Uighur militants.
The Uighur community in Kyrgyzstan arrived in in separate waves. The 2009 Kyrgyzstan census counted almost 50,000 Uighurs in the country (1.0% of the population), but unofficial estimates suggest of up 200,000: Uighurs say many Uighurs register as Uzbeks. Many work in the “East-5” suburb and its bazaars.
There is local prejudice against Uighurs: Many Bishkek media portray Uighurs as terrorists and extremists. Uighur bazaars and residential areas have been the targets of numerous attacks by nationalist locals in 2000 and 2005; Uighurs also suffered when anti-government demonstrators vented their anger on them in 2010.
It is not just the grassroots that is suspicious. Local authorities in Kyrgyzstan also fear that Uighurs’ anti-Chinese activities could set the country on a collision course with Beijing.
The Uighur organization Ittipak (launched in Krygyztan in 1989) is considered separatist by China, and Beijing pressures Bishkek to keep it under control. In 2000, Ittipak leader Nigmat Bazakov was assassinated; Kyrgyzstan officials arrested four members of the East Turkestan Liberation Organization (another local Uighur separatist group) and tried them for the murder, but some local Uighurs believe Beijing was behind it.
And in 2009, during Ittipak’s 20th anniversary celebration, Kyrgyz authorities detained Chairman Dilmurat Akbarov over a Bishkek demonstration against Beijing policies in Xinjiang.
All this suggests little chance of any resistance movement forming against China in the region. “The authorities in Central Asia are too closely connected with Beijing for that,” an American author of an upcoming book on the Uighurs told Asia Times.