Ethnic Kazakhs who fled Xinjiang are caught in an awkward vortex of domestic politics, international pressures, and the legacies of ethnicity and nationalism in Kazakhstan.
Kazakh authorities have refused to grant citizenship to a trio of ethnic Kazakhs who fled China’s Xinjiang province at the height of the internment campaign, according to an RFE/RL report.
Qaisha Aqan, Murager Alimuly, and Kaster Musakhanuly are three of a handful of ethnic Kazakhs who fled Xinjiang in 2018 and 2019 only to be caught up in an awkward vortex of domestic politics, international pressures, and the legacies of ethnicity and nationalism in Kazakhstan.
When Kazakhstan became independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it had the unique position of being the only Soviet republic in which the namesake ethnicity was not a majority.
According to Soviet census records, in 1926 Kazakhs did constitute a majority in the republic (58.5 percent) but by 1970 they made up just 32.4 percent of the republic’s population. This shift had many factors. A devastating famine in the early 1930s, in which an estimate 1.5 million Kazakhs perished, was followed by World War II-era forced deportations and wartime relocations of various ethnic groups (such as Koreans from the Far East and Germans from the West). Then Nikita Khrushchev’s Virgin Lands Campaign and the centering of the Soviet space program on the Baikonur Cosmodrome brought considerable numbers of ethnic Russians into Kazakh lands. By the final Soviet census in 1989, Kazakhs constituted the largest ethnic group in the republic, but at 39.7 percent of the population, were not a majority (at that time around 37.8 percent of the republic’s population were ethnic Russians.)
This background is necessary to understand the strong domestic currents against which the Kazakh government is now turning.
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After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Kazakh leaders made a point of calling out to ethnic Kazakhs to “return” to their homeland. Ethnic Kazakhs who returned after independence are known as “Oralmans” or “returnees.” As ethnic Russians migrated to Russia and Germans to Germany, Kazakhs also migrated and the state facilitated this process. It still does, for some.
For example, in mid-May a trainload of ethnic Kazakhs emigrating from Turkmenistan arrived to a cheering crowd in Zhanaozen. According to RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, more than 400 ethnic Kazakhs were approved to relocate from Turkmenistan in early 2020 but their arrival was postponed by the pandemic. As the report notes, those willing to move to northern Kazakhstan are offered financial incentives, housing, and other benefits, but many prefer to stay near family, often not far from the borders they just crossed.
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But not all ethnic Kazakhs receive the same welcome these days. The cases of Aqan, Alimuly, and Musakhanuly (as well Sairagul Sauytbay) are illustrative of the international pressures complicating Kazakhstan’s efforts. In these cases, the state says the individuals crossed the border illegally. The individuals, of course, claim to be seeking asylum from the Chinese state, which has been harshly criticized for repressive policies targeting Muslim groups in Xinjiang, mostly Uyghurs but also Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and others.
Alimuly and Musakhanuly arrived in Kazakhstan in October 2019 and almost immediately released video testimonies of what they had witnessed in Xinjiang and why they had fled to Kazakhstan. The men were arrested for illegally crossing the border, but also granted temporary asylum-seeker status. Aqan had entered Kazakhstan in May 2018 to seek asylum, citing threats from local authorities in Xinjiang that she would be taken to one of the camps. In December 2019, a judge gave her a six-month suspended sentence but ruled she wouldn’t be deported back to China.
Back in 2019, I suggested that Alimuly and Musakhanuly would find that, like Sauytbay, asylum-seeker status would be but a temporary reprieve. After being denied full asylum, Sauytbay eventually left Kazakhstan in June 2019 for Sweden, which soon approved her asylum request.
The latest development for Aqan, Alimuly, and Musakhanuly suggests that they will not find a home in Kazakhstan. According to RFE/RL’s report, the trio received letters signed by Deputy Interior Minister Arystangali Zapparov which stated that “they would not be granted citizenship because their place of permanent residence was outside Kazakhstan before they were convicted of illegally crossing the border.”
It’s hard not to see China’s hand behind Kazakhstan’s decisions when it comes to ethnic Kazakhs who fled Xinjiang.
William Courtney, a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, tweeted in response to the news, “Disappointing. For three decades #Kazakhstan has encouraged ethnic #Kazakhs abroad to come ‘home.’ How painful it must be now to bow to #China on who can become a citizen of Kazakhstan.”