More and more Kazakhs flee Xinjiang and forced labour camps, and are welcomed by Nur-Sultan as refugees. The crossroads between “nationalism” and “cultural expansionism”. Enthusiasm cools for the “Belt and Road Initiative”, the New Silk Road.
Moscow (AsiaNews) – Kazakhstan has decided to assign refugee status to four Chinese of Kazakh origin, fleeing Xinjiang to avoid persecution. The decision taken on 24 December last has been welcomed by national public opinion, revealing the discontent of the Kazakhs towards China (see photo), accused by many parties of oppressing Xinjiang Muslims in forced labour camps, which Beijing defines “vocational training centres”.
According to Tristan Kenderdine, director of Future Risk interviewed by the local Radio Azattyk, the choice does not depend on the opposition to China, but “on social processes within Kazakhstan”. Instead of a policy based on random reactions, a strategy is emerging to redefine relations with China, and control the exodus of the Kazakhs from Xinjiang. The latter were until now called oralmany, the “returning”. A recent official decision has instead changed the term to kandasy, the “blood relatives”, to indicate a community less linked to the conditions of foreign countries where more than 4 million people of Kazakh ethnicity live.
The Kandasy will have the opportunity to obtain Kazakh citizenship according to jus sanguinis rather than jus fuguee, re-establishing the ideal of “great Kazakhstan” beyond the borders. Moreover, not all Kazakhs abroad wish to return to their homeland, often considering it as a fictional territory created by the Soviets. Many of them feel at home whether in Xinjiang, Mongolia or Uzbekistan, although local policies do not fail to challenge them with various forms of limitation and oppression.
The population is at the crossroads between a “nationalist” choice, which proposes the state of Kazakhstan as the only “safe house” for all Kazakhs, and one of “cultural expansionism”, which somehow wants to appropriate the Kazakh ethnic diaspora wherever it is. This alternative, which the country has been discussing since the end of the Soviet Union, has to deal with the new Chinese policy of “homogenization” of all nationalities within the “Sinicized” empire. On both sides, the reference model remains the Soviet one, with the Russification of all local ethnic groups by virtue of the Russian “historical mission”: 30 years after the end of the USSR, the winds of restoration of the imperial mentality socialist blow from various directions.
However, a decisive factor is the economic condition, which is currently much more solid in China than in Kazakhstan. The capital Nur-Sultan, despite its claims, is still underdeveloped: in 2019, when its name changed from Astana, it was decided to make it the showcase of the “new Kazakhstan” post-Soviet, and the further name in honour of the “president eternal” Nazarbaev relaunches this project, which however does not go beyond some ultramodern palace of power. Other historic cities such as Almaty or Karaganda are still seen by Kazakhs abroad as “Russian cities” with a Soviet footprint, grey and unattractive.
The Kandasy also come up against a cultural difficulty linked to the lack of knowledge of the Russian language, which is still largely that spoken by the local population, especially in smaller towns, despite all the policies to promote the Kazakh national language. Abroad, the Kazakhs often obtain an education much higher than that which they could receive by returning to their historic homeland. Much will also depend on the development of the new Silk Road (the Belt and Road Initiative), which in addition to infrastructure provides, especially in Central Asia and Kazakhstan itself, the implementation of new industrial production lines. China needs to close many of the too many factories inside it, and to open them in less developed countries, linked to its projects.
In the last two years, however, the Silk Road has lost a lot of proactive force, due to the significant downsizing of investments planned by China. This leaves the government of Kazakhstan and the other countries involved in uncertainty, between orientations towards the East or the West, towards Russia or the European Union. Not just some kandasy, but the whole of Kazakhstan has to decide which direction to take.