Minorities at Risk

The events in Kazakhstan have put activists from protest movements, independent journalists, and human rights defenders at risk. Naturally, their situation is concerning and has become the main focus of international organizations and the media. But the voices of those troubled by the situation of ethnic minorities in Central Asia are not resonating as strongly. These groups are particularly vulnerable, since they can easily become hostage to a complicated political situation. After all, there have been occasional attempts to accuse national minorities of every misfortune. Now that troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) countries have been drafted to protect the authorities in Kazakhstan and senior politicians have spoken about their intentions to continue “to fight threats together,” the risks for some ethnic groups have increased dramatically.

Tajik expert Parviz Mullojanov writes about this with concern:

“The entry of CSTO troops into Kazakhstan creates a precedent that makes it much easier for member countries to take a similar kind of decision. As a consequence, in the future those Tokayevs, Lukashenkos, and the rest of them can take advantage of this precedent to deal with challenges both from without and from within. It will be enough to connect opposition groups speaking out against them with some outside factors or threats, for example, on the part of Islamic radicals.”

Mullojanov writes accurately about the extremely tense situation in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast, Tajikistan (GBAO), where internet and mobile communications have been turned off since November, major protests have been held, and demonstrators have been shot by the police. The Pamiris are now waiting for an investigation into the events of late 2021 and fear new strong-arm operations. In a communication to UN structures, ADC Memorial noted that “GBAO residents are in a state of constant tension: They fear for themselves and their family members, are afraid to leave the house or let their children out, and are not able to let their relatives abroad know how they are.” In recent years, a great many Pamiris have become migrant workers and are living in Russia and other countries. The lack of communication with their family members at home is a real tragedy during such a dangerous time for GBAO residents.

During a virtual meeting of representatives of CSTO countries about Kazakhstan, proposals were made concerning Tajikistan. The first to mention this was Aleksandr Lukashenko: “For years, the president of Tajikistan has been asking us for material support, primarily military equipment, and we need to do this so that it doesn’t end up costing us more later, like it did with Kazakhstan…. We need to promptly expose the forces that…are capable of crossing a red line and crack down on their destructive activities.” The Tajik president supported him: “The situation on the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border is becoming increasingly complicated every day…. So we need to create a ‘buffer zone’ around Afghanistan.” It’s not surprising that the Pamiris living on this border are alarmed by plans to “crack down on” protests.

Human rights defenders are also concerned about the impact the crisis in Kazakhstan will have on the border regions of Uzbekistan. There have been reports about arrests in Karakalpakstan: “Ten men and two women suspected of ‘extremism’ were detained in Nukus for expressing solidarity with the people of Kazakhstan. Uzbek authorities fear that the events in Kazakhstan, where many Karakalpaks migrate for work and a large diaspora is present, could impact internal stability.” In 2021, Karakalpak activists made demands concerning the protection of their cultural and socioeconomic rights, prompting a harsh reaction from the authorities. The Russian media reported on this problem in its own unique way: “The idea of forming a ‘national liberation’ movement was most likely brought in from outside to undermine this republic, which is successful in comparison to many other post-Soviet states… Creating yet another ‘hotspot’ on the territory of the former Soviet Union is entirely realistic: old mines plus fuses.”

The Rosbalt journalist, Irina Dzhorbenadze, does not explain where she got the suspicion that the idea was “brought in from outside” or who exactly set the goal of “undermining this republic.” All this vague rhetoric and hints at “old mines” (should this be understood as discrimination against the Karakalpak in Uzbekistan?) resembles the latest statements by politicians about secret “sleeper cells” and “outside threats.” Karakalpak activists have long complained of harassment in their own “sovereign republic” (this is the status assigned to Karakalpakstan under the Constitution of Uzbekistan), and say that local lands are being allocated to farmers from other regions of Uzbekistan and that “land and work are given on the basis of ethnicity,” which means that the Karakalpak cannot find jobs or obtain permission to open businesses. The close ties many Karakalpak families have with Kazakhstan may give the Uzbek authorities the reason they need for a new round of repressions.

In Kazakhstan itself, some minorities have experienced not just discrimination, but also actual pogroms.

ADC Memorial has repeatedly written about the events in Korday District, where pogromists burned down Dungan houses, attacked and killed people, and destroyed property one night in February 2020. The recent events in Kazakhstan have forced members of the Dungan community to recall their own tragedy: “If these thousands of criminals, their patrons, and the organizers of the Dungan pogroms had been punished, then the tragedy that happened in Kazakhstan in January could possibly have been avoided.”

An attorney for the affected Dungan families noted that “unknown, but very influential forces organized and directed the mass unrest in the villages of Masanchi, Bular batyr, and Aukhatty… A number of the facts that ‘surfaced’ later during the court proceedings in the criminal case on the mass unrest are evidence that the people involved in organizing the unrest were highly-placed and that forces behind them were influential. These forces could have even influenced the investigation group led by the Prosecutor General’s Office and comprised of investigators from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the National Security Committee and staff members from offices of the Prosecutor General’s Office. They influenced not just these bodies, but in all likelihood the court as well… By illegally charging representatives of the Dungan people, who assumed the role of police officers and heroically risked their lives and health to defend their villages, families, and property from the attackers, they shifted responsibility for failures in their work onto these people.” This attorney called for “a review of the unjust court verdicts against members of the Dungan ethnicity who rallied to defend their villages on February 7 and 8, 2020.”

How will events develop in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries? Will the crisis in Kazakhstan open up new opportunities for solving old problems, as the Dungan and their supporters hope? Or will it create additional threats, as the Pamiris and Karakalpak fear? Whatever the case, as we follow the events in Kazakhstan, it’s important not to forget about the ethnic minorities, about those who have the hardest time protecting their rights. This is especially true for peoples who do not have their own separate federal status, like the Uighurs, the Dungan, the Pamiris, and the Karakalpak.

Stephania KULAEVA

First published on Radio Liberty’s blog