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Uyghurs in Kazakhstan

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    Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group, speaking a southeastern Turkic language related to Uzbek with an estimated population of 224,713 (1.4 per cent) in Kazakhstan (National Census, 2009), mainly inhabiting the areas bordering China in the Almaty oblast. 

    Historical context

    Kazakhstan’s historical Uyghur minority are for the most part the remnants of the vast Uyghur Empire which towards the 8th Century stretched from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria. Eventually to be overrun by the tribes that became the Kazakhs, most Uyghurs migrated into what is now China, though some remained in the Almaty oblast close to China. During the Soviet era, many Uyghur were assimilated into the Russian-speaking society, with the result that a majority of Uyghur today speak Russian rather than Kazakh or even Uyghur. 

    More recently, substantial numbers of Uyghurs fleeing Chinese repression in Xinjiang have joined the historically well-established Uyghur population in Almaty oblast. In 1962 between 60,000 and 120,000 Uyghurs and Kazakhs fled into Kazakhstan to avoid repression in China. 

    There are thus two distinct Uyghur minority communities: one established for centuries, and the other originally from Xinjiang made of mainly refugees and others fleeing the repression of Chinese authorities. 

    The Soviet authorities allowed Uyghurs a considerable degree of cultural self-expression, perhaps partly to destabilize the political and social situation in neighbouring China during the Sino-Soviet rift. Uyghurs were permitted Uyghur-language newspapers, television, radio and theatre. 

    In June 1992 advocates of an independent Uyghurstan convened their first congress in Almaty. This resulted in the creation of the East Turkestan Committee and the Uyghurstan Organization of Freedom. Registration of the former by the Kazakh authorities prompted a Chinese protest. Uyghur Kurultai (Congress) in Almaty campaigned for increased autonomy in Xinjiang, greater civil and religious freedoms there, and more freedom to travel to and from the region. The Chinese authorities protested against meetings organized by groups calling for an independent Uyghurstan, but the Kazakh government tolerated them. During the visit of Li Peng in April 1994, the Kazakh Government restricted travel in several border regions and in the Uyghur Raion to avoid public protests against China’s policies in Xinjiang. 

    More recently, the Kazakh authorities have started to clamp down on the activities of Uyghur organisations deemed to be linked with separatist activities in Xinjiang. There have also been a number of forced returns of Uyghurs to China from Kazakhstan and several of its neighbouring countries. In some recent cases, returnees are reported to have been subjected to serious human rights violations, including torture, unfair trials and even executions. 

    Current issues

    Like most other non-Kazakh minorities, the Uyghurs are underrepresented in terms of employment in state administration and other areas of employment in the public sphere. Though there are several districts where Uyghurs are concentrated in Almaty oblast, ethnic Kazakhs are usually appointed as district heads and other positions of responsibility. There are continuing claims that Uyghurs are not sufficiently represented in government institutions. One notable exception is Karim Massimov, an ethnic Uyghur, who was reappointed as prime minister in April 2014 and served until his dismissal in 2016. However, some analysts suggested that his appointment was due in part to the fact that, as a member of an ethnic minority, he is not seen as a potential successor to the President and therefore does not threaten the balance of power among Kazakhstan’s elite. In September 2016 he was reassigned to the Committee of National Security as Chairman – a move widely interpreted as a demotion. 

    Additionally, Uyghurs in recent years appear to face more obstacles and interference from state authorities linked to the widespread stereotyping in Kazakhstan of Uyghurs as ‘terrorists’ or ‘separatists’, and linked to the country’s valued political and economic ties with China. This seems to have resulted in some Uyghur rights advocacy groups having to surmount greater difficulties and delays in obtaining registration. Uyghur organisations such as the Islamic Party of Eastern Turkestan and the Eastern Turkestan Liberation Organisation have also been listed as terrorist organizations. There are concerns that increasing pressure from China could see the freedoms of Uyghur communities in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries curtailed.

    Updated June 2015

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