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Francisco Olmos

Research Fellow

Francisco Olmos is a London-based independent researcher specialised in Central Asian affairs. He has recently completed a master’s degree in International Relations with a dissertation on Russian, Chinese and American influence in the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. Besides his interest in the region, he has been working as a management consultant in financial services for the last 8 years

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Around 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups have been interned in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang.[1] While the Chinese authorities say they are there of their own free will, recently leaked files from the Chinese government indicate that they are locked up in camps subject to mistreatment, from forced labour to sexual abuse.[2] The reaction of the United States (US) and Europe is known, with the US taking the strongest approach so far in condemning Beijing’s actions and blacklisting a number of organisations for their involvement in the campaign.[3] However, not much attention has been paid to the response of China’s closest neighbours to the west. These countries have closer ties to China, some of them even share a border with Xinjiang, and also have cultural and ethnic links to those minorities victimised by the Chinese authorities. The Central Asian republics have all supported China in regards to its treatment of the Muslim minorities, but the way the governments of these countries have responded to it differs depending on the role and strength of their own civil societies as well as the relationship they have with those being persecuted.

The Uyghurs have not been the only minority, although they are the largest one, targeted by the Chinese authorities. Other Turkic groups, such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, and non-Turkic Central Asian groups such as Tajiks, have shared the same fate. However, unlike the Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Tajiks do have states where their kin is the titular nationality. This, together with the fact that in broad terms they share the same religion, puts Central Asian republics in a different position when it comes to dealing with China’s actions in Xinjiang. Nevertheless, rather than a romanticised solidarity of a shared ethnicity or religion, what is defining the Central Asian states’ response is political and economic pragmatism, despite domestic opposition in some cases.

From the Caspian Sea in the west to the Tien Shan Mountains in the east, China is increasingly becoming the main trading and investment partner for the Central Asian nations. Some cases are more extreme than others, with Turkmenistan’s economy depending almost entirely on its exports to China and with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan heavily indebted to Beijing. The unwillingness of the republics to alienate their powerful neighbour is what defines their response to the current situation.

While the five republics have publicly backed China in its actions in Xinjiang, they can be divided into two categories. The first group is made up of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, who have voiced their support of Beijing whenever possible. The second group is formed by Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, whose governments have also supported Beijing but have done so in a more tactful manner to better deal with those in their society who vocally oppose China’s repression of their ethnic peers at the other side of the border, fuelling the already existing anti-Chinese sentiment in their countries.

No space for dissent

In July 2019, 36 countries signed a letter supporting China’s policies in Xinjiang as a response to another letter sent to the United Nations Human Rights Council by mostly Western nations calling on China to halt its interment campaign. Two Central Asian republics were among those who defended Beijing: Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. A few weeks later, Uzbekistan joined them.

It should come as no surprise that Turkmenistan stands firmly by China, even when signing the aforementioned letter contravened its policy of neutrality in the international arena. The nation ruled with an iron grip by Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is the country in the region that depends the most on the Asian giant. Through a series of trade blunders and lack of vision, China has become the sole market for Turkmenistan’s gas, notwithstanding Russia’s token imports. This means that China is now the destination for almost 80 per cent of Turkmenistan’s exports.[4] It is therefore expected for Ashgabat, also notorious for its lack of freedoms and human rights abuses, to unequivocally take Beijing’s side.

Tajikistan similarly has links too close to China to be able to afford displeasing it. Dushanbe owes Beijing almost half of its foreign debt, $1.2 billion out of $2.9 billion.[5] Furthermore it has the closest relationship with China in security terms in the region. Up to 40 guard posts along the Tajik-Afghan border have been built or refurbished by the Chinese, who in addition have boots on the ground through an outpost in the Gorno-Badakhshan region.[6] Despite reports of ethnic Tajiks in the internment camps, Emomali Rahmon’s regime has explicitly supported China.

Uzbekistan offers a different perspective to Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Despite China already being a major trading partner, Tashkent may not be looking so much to its present situation but rather to the opportunities an increased collaboration with Beijing can bring. As part of President Mirziyoyev’s opening of the country to foreign investment, Uzbekistan is looking to bolster its relations with China. From infrastructure projects to attracting Chinese tourists by waving visas for short stays, Chinese-Uzbek relations are on the rise. As a result, Uzbekistan did not hesitate to deport Gene Bunin, an expert who collects data on the Xinjiang camps, or prevent a small gathering to commemorate the first president, an ethnic Uyghur, of the short-lived Second East Turkestan Republic (1944-49). Uzbekistan’s own Uyghur minority has no presence in wider society and its media does not cover the situation of the Uyghurs in China.[7]

What Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have in common and which defines their stance on the Xinjiang camps is the lack of an active civil society due to the authoritarian nature of their respective regimes. Notwithstanding the differences among the three countries, there is little space for people to voice their discontent on local or national issues, let alone those concerning foreign countries. Therefore, their governments have no impediment to back China. The fact that Tajiks are in camps or that Uzbekistan has an Uyghur minority does not make much of a difference in the authorities’ stance in regards to Xinjiang.

Balancing act

Neither Kazakhstan nor Kyrgyzstan signed the letter in support of China that the other three republics did. This does not mean they do not stand by Beijing’s campaign in Xinjiang. Their governments do, but that view is not supported by some of its citizens. Both countries have to balance the need to be on good terms with China, as it is a vital economic partner, with the growing anti-Chinese sentiment in their populations.

Kazakhstan is finding it the hardest to walk this tight rope. China is the main market for Kazakhstan’s exports, including an important proportion of its oil, bilateral trade that amounts to over $12 billion[8] and Nur-Sultan is a key partner in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. As with the rest of the Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan cannot afford to alienate China and has no intention of doing so. However, unlike in the other republics, its demographics and rise of civil society result in a more complex situation. It is estimated that up to 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs live in the province of Xinjiang and they are among those targeted by Chinese officials.[9] In addition, as a result of the oralman or return programme of ethnic Kazakhs promoted by the government after independence, thousands of families are now divided between Kazakhstan and China, with those that moved to the former playing an active role in defence of their relatives, who in many cases have been interned. Uyghurs, the major group persecuted in Xinjiang, are also present in Kazakhstan, numbering up to 250,000.[10] The diaspora has established organisations to defend the rights of Kazakhs and Uyghurs, like Atajurt Eriktileri, which are raising their voices in defence of those repressed in the neighbouring country.

Kazakh authorities have responded by applying a policy of carrot and stick, with a preponderance of the latter, to navigate this situation. On the one hand, it has sent diplomatic notes to Beijing concerning itself with the situation of ethnic Kazakhs and it has given in to internal and external pressure in some high-profile cases like that of Sairagul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh Chinese national who became a whistle-blower regarding the camps and avoided extradition to China from Kazakhstan to end up in Sweden. But more often than not, the Kazakh government has reacted as one would expect an authoritarian regime to by not allowing protestors to gather and dispersing them when they do. This includes the detention of the leader of Atajurt Eriktileri, Serikjan Bilash, and the co-optation of the group, now split in two.

If the situation in Xinjiang was simply about the internment of people the Kazakh authorities would be able to dismiss such events and opposition since they do not appeal to a majority of the population. However, they add to the existing anti-Chinese sentiment that has been brewing in the country in the last years. The dread of Chinese influence has resulted in a number of protests, from the 2016 demonstrations against a land reform to those in September 2019 against plans for China to build 55 factories, to name the most relevant. Fear of the Chinese taking land, controlling the country and the influx of Chinese workers fuelled the protests. The issue of Xinjiang is now being absorbed, or sits alongside, these anti-Chinese movements. This is taking place at a time when the Kazakh state is experiencing a political transition and civil society is increasingly demanding freedoms and accountability through activist groups like Oyan, Qazaqstan and Qaharman.

Kyrgyzstan faces a similar situation to that of Kazakhstan. Like Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic is heavily indebted to China. In turn, Beijing invests in multiple infrastructure projects around the country, some of doubtful quality like the ill-fated power station that left residents of Bishkek without heating in the middle of winter in 2018.[11] Furthermore, Chinese companies exploit the country’s mineral wealth and employ Chinese workers to do so. All these factors have contributed to a rising Sinophobic sentiment that has also emerged in neighbouring Kazakhstan. The interment of ethnic Kyrgyz in camps in Xinjiang has become part of this wider issue.

In the last year, at least five waves of anti-Chinese protests have taken place in Kyrgyzstan.[12] While expressing support for the ethnic Kyrgyz persecuted in China, the main aim of the demonstrators has been to protest against the inflow of Chinese workers, the way Chinese companies operate and their increasing presence in the country. In response to Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang, Kyrgyz president Sooronbai Jeenbekov has maintained a perceived neutrality that favours China, stating that Bishkek should not meddle in the internal affairs of their neighbour and that diplomacy would run its course on the Xinjiang camps. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan did not join Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in signing the letter officially backing Beijing’s policy in its western province.

The issue of the interment of Muslim minorities in China does not concern the governments of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan besides some minor reputational setbacks in public relations. The numbers of those demanding a stricter response solely in regard to the fate of ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uyghurs are not significant. The issue for the authorities arises when this feeds into wider anti-Chinese protests and it becomes another tool in the arsenal of demonstrators and, especially in Kazakhstan’s case, of far-reaching movements that call for change and the democratisation of the institutions. 

The governments of the five Central Asian republics know where their economic present and future lies, and that is in China. There is no such thing as an ethnic or religious solidarity with those interned in Xinjiang. Pragmatism is the guiding principle of the authorities, who themselves have a poor track-record when it comes to human rights. The same applies to the majority of the citizens in those countries, who have few personal links to those detained and are suffering themselves from the lack of freedoms, namely in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It should come as no surprise that those three countries have been more vocal in the support of China. Only in the cases of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the nations with the most open civil societies in the region, have authorities had to be tactful due to the increasing Sinophobia, whose impact should not be exaggerated but that could sour relations with China, while at the same time controlling the discontent to avoid it spilling into other segments of society. In the meantime, the fate of more than a million people interned in camps fades into the background in the midst of realpolitik.



[1] Adrian Zenz, Brainwashing, Police Guards and Coercive Internment: Evidence from Chinese Government Documents about the Nature and Extent of Xinjiang’s ‘Vocational Training Internment Camps’, Journal of Political Risk, July 2019, http://www.jpolrisk.com/brainwashing-police-guards-and-coercive-internment-evidence-from-chinese-government-documents-about-the-nature-and-extent-of-xinjiangs-vocational-training-internment-camps/

[2] Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley, ‘Absolutely No Mercy’: Leaked Files Expose How China Organized Mass Detentions of Muslims, The New York Times, November 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/16/world/asia/china-xinjiang-documents.html?module=inline

[3] Charles Rollet, Xinjiang Backlash Is Hitting Chinese Firms Hard, Foreign Policy, October 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/18/xinjiang-sanctions-chinese-firms-surveillance/

[4] Sam Bhutia, Turkmenistan’s mainline to China, Eurasianet, October 2019, https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistans-mainline-to-china

[5] Farangis Najibullah, Silver Lining? Tajikistan Defends Controversial Decision To Give Mine To China, RFE/RL, October 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/silver-lining-tajikistan-defends-controversial-decision-to-give-mine-to-china/30199786.html

[6] Catherine Putz, China in Tajikistan: New Report Claims Chinese Troops Patrol Large Swaths of the Afghan-Tajik Border, The Diplomat, June 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/06/china-in-tajikistan-new-report-claims-chinese-troops-patrol-large-swaths-of-the-afghan-tajik-border/

[7] Eurasianet, Uzbekistan’s invisible Uighurs, July 2019, https://eurasianet.org/uzbekistans-invisible-uighurs

[8] Zhanna Shayakhmetova, Kazakhstan seeks high-tech, agricultural cooperation with China, Astana Times, September 2019, https://astanatimes.com/2019/09/kazakhstan-seeks-high-tech-agricultural-cooperation-with-china-says-tokayev-during-beijing-business-council-meeting/

[9] Bruce Pannier, China's New Security Concern – The Kazakhs, RFE/RL, August 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/qishloq-ovozi-kazakhstan-china-deteriorating-relations-uyghurs/28665937.html

[10] Ryskeldi Satke, Uighurs in Kyrgyzstan hope for peace despite violence, Al Jazeera, January 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/09/uighurs-kyrgyzstan-hope-piece-violence-160915133619696.html

[11] Catherine Putz, Bitter Cold Hits Bishkek, Chinese-Repaired Power Plant Breaks Down, The Diplomat, January 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/bitter-cold-hits-bishkek-chinese-repaired-power-plant-breaks-down/

[12] Elzbieta Pron and Emilie Szwajnoch, Kazakh Anti-Chinese Protests and the Issue of Xinjiang Detention Camps, CACI, October 2019, http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13593-kazakh-anti-chinese-protests-and-the-issue-of-xinjiang-detention-camps.html

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Countries all over the world have gone through the process of forming and developing national myths that give them their raison d’être, inspiring its citizens looking back at the forefathers. From the legend of King Arthur in Britain, to the Reconquista in Spain or Charlemagne in France, myths based to a greater or lesser extent in history have evolved throughout centuries and have permeated the psyche of its citizens, especially since the 19th century. The Central Asian republics on the other hand had to create and adopt their myths abruptly when they became independent.

The current borders of the Central Asian republics where created in the 1920s and 30s by the Bolsheviks along ethno-linguistic lines that were all but clear. Nationalities, as the Soviets understood them, were a term unknown in the region, where individuals were defined by their family, tribes or places of origin rather than on ethnic terms. As a result, there were Persian speakers that where heavily Turkified, Turkic speakers that were Persanised, Turkmen tribes that identified themselves as Uzbek, Uzbeks who said they were Turkmen and with a confusion on the nomenclature of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz where some of the issues the Soviet authorities faced when drawing up the borders for the different Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) in the region.

Overnight, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan became sovereign nations and had to begin a state-building process that included creating a national narrative, which was an important factor for the nations’ cohesiveness. In most cases, the leaders of the republics looked back at the past in search of national heroes and splendour, overlooking actual historical facts and using them to their advantage for their own political purposes. As we will see, the way this was done varies from country to country owning to their different historical, demographic and political situations.

Uzbekistan, the land of Tamerlane  

Of the five Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan is the prime example of the use of a single historical figure to provide its narrative with a spine. It was Amir Timur (better known in the West as Tamerlane) who was chosen by then President Islam Karimov to be the country’s national hero.

Timur was a 14th century Turco-Mongol conqueror that established the last great Central Asian Empire that in its heyday stretched from Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) in the west to India in the east. Born in Shahrisabz (modern-day Uzbekistan), Timur was a skilful military leader that created his empire through a number of successful and ruthless military campaigns at the same time as he embellished his capital, the fabled Samarkand.

The choice of Timur, a brutal yet successful conqueror, as national hero suited Karimov’s aspiration for regional supremacy, for which it competed with Kazakhstan, as well as to its nationalist policies in country that had a sizeable Tajik-speaking minority. In addition, while Timur was a ruthless emir, he did create a powerful state during his lifetime, something which President Karimov, himself an authoritarian figure with a dismal human rights track record, aspired to and perhaps wanted to be compared to. Parallels between both rulers, intended or not, do not stop there. None of them were actually Uzbek, with Karimov believed to possibly be of ethnic Tajik origin[1] and Timur’s case explained below, and their legacy started to crumble soon after their deaths.

Timur was an obvious choice for Karimov and his government. However, there are problems with the conqueror being considered the founder of the Uzbek nation. In the first place, as mentioned above, he was not Uzbek. He was part of the Barlas tribe, a Mongolian confederation that had been Turkified after years spent in the region. As a matter of fact, the Uzbeks were enemies to his successors and in the late 15th century eventually settled in present-day Uzbekistan. From a historical perspective, the Uzbek Shaybanid dynasty that ousted the Timurids and established the Khanate of Bukhara in the 16th century would be a more accurate historical choice. Despite being a regional powerful state during that time, giving such a refined and effective ruler as Abdullah II Khan (r. 1583 – 1598), the Khanate of Bukhara or its neighbour, the also Uzbek-ruled Khanate of Khiva, cannot be compared with Timur’s grandeur and role in history. Uzbekistan needed a strong and even feared ruler, and Timur, despite historical and even linguistic and ethnic inaccuracies, fitted the part.

While Timur is the main character used by the Uzbek authorities in their nation building process, other historical figures have been used to create a narrative around Uzbek culture. The most prominent of those has been the poet Alisher Nava’i (1441-1501), famed for using a Turkic language instead of Persian as was common at the time. In this case, the project had already been started by the Soviet authorities who saw Nava’i as the great representative of the Uzbek language. As part of their project to create states along ethno-linguistic lines, the Soviets renamed Chagatai, the Turkic language used by Nava’i, as ‘old Uzbek’ despite the fact that it was a different language to the actual Uzbek spoken by the Uzbek tribes, who rapidly adopted Chagatai.[2] The modern Uzbek is a continuation of Chagatai and was not known as ‘Uzbek’ until the Soviets renamed it as such. Therefore, taking advantage of the narrative already established during Soviet times, it was only natural for Nava’i to continue his role as the founder of Uzbek literature.

Tajikistan, Samanid irredentism

Contrary to the other republics, which are of Turkic origin, Tajikistan is culturally and linguistically Persian. Rather than steppe empires and conquerors, the Tajik authorities had to look elsewhere to find their foundational myth, and it was an easier task. Once the civil war was over in 1997 and state-building could get properly started, President Emomali Rahmon looked towards the Samanid Empire for inspiration.

The Samanid Empire (819-999) was the last great Iranian state in Central Asia, with apologies the 12th century Ghurids. At its zenith, the Samanids were the powerhouse of their day and ruled from their capital at Bukhara over most of modern day Iran, as well as Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics. Before them, the region had fallen under the influence of the Arabs and after them it would be the different Turkic states who would take over. Resorting to the Samanids as the founders of the Tajik nation was a logical strategy which had a more solid base than, for instance, the Uzbeks claiming Timur as one of their own. Ismail Samani, the greatest of the Samanid rulers, has become the main character in the country’s history. He has given the name to the Tajik currency (the somoni), the highest mountain in Tajikistan, and a large statue of him stands proudly in the capital Dushanbe.

However, modern day Tajikistan is but a shadow of what the Samanids were. The Soviet delineation that created the Tajik SSR left the Tajiks with no major city. The great cultural lighthouses of Bukhara and Samarkand, the former capitals of the Samanids, who the Tajiks claim as their own and where sizeable Tajik-speaking populations still live, were given to Uzbekistan. By associating Tajikistan with the Samanid Empire in an effort to stress the importance of the Tajiks who once dominated the region, the government implicitly claimed the territory once occupied by the Samanids, and that includes Samarkand and Bukhara in neighbouring Uzbekistan.[3]

Reaching out of Tajikistan’s current borders has also been attempted by Rahmon and his government in cultural terms. The poet Rudaki (859-940/41), is rightfully seen as the main beacon of culture in Tajikistan. Born not far away from Dushanbe, he is considered to be the first great literary figure of neo-Persian literature and his poetry is read not only in Tajikistan but in the wider Persian-speaking world. However, Rahmon’s claim that Persian intellectuals like Ferdowsi, Hafiz, Omar Khayyam, Rumi and Avicenna, among others, are Tajiks can be considered taking a step too far.[4]

Turkmenistan, a living myth for the Turkmen

Out of all the Central Asian republics, Turkmenistan had one of the hardest tasks in creating a historical narrative as a result of its tribal structure prior to the Soviet-era and a lack of a historical state. Nevertheless, the Turkmen state did use a number of historical figures like the semi-mythical Oguz Khan, the father of the Turkic people, and Sultan Sanjar, the Seljuk ruler who established himself in Merv (in present-day Turkmenistan). However, the main founder of the Turkmen nation was not a distant figure who had been dead for centuries but Turkmenistan’s own first president, Saparmurat Niyazov.

Niyazov established an eccentric personality cult around him to cement his power at the head of the country. Without a strong family clan to support him, he ensured all authority in the country rested on him. He adopted the title of Türkmenbaşy (Head of the Turkmen), made himself ever-present in the life of ordinary Turkmens and wrote a pseudo-spiritual and revised historical guide called Ruhnama that became mandatory for students. Niyavoz established himself not only as the political leader of Turkmenistan but also as its historical and even spiritual reference point.

As in the case of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the Soviet authorities promoted literary figures in Turkmenistan as they were seen less contentious than historical leaders. In Turkmenistan’s case it was Magtymguly Pyragy (1724-c.1807), the undisputable master of Turkmen literature. Magtymguly not only wrote his verses in Turkmen, rather than Persian, about love, religion and spiritualism, but he also tried to promote the unification of the different Turkmen tribes ‘between the Amu-Darya and the Caspian.’ If one historical figure represents the desire for a unified Turkmen nation that is Magtymguly, but political motives have relegated the poet to only a literary role. 

Kyrgyzstan, an epic history

While some of the republics, namely Uzbekistan, pursued a nationalistic policy from the beginning, in Kyrgyzstan the process was more gradual as a result of the ethnic composition of the country. Rather than creating a national narrative based on the titular nationality, Kyrgyzstan’s first president, Askar Akayev, ideated the motto of ‘Kyrgyzstan is our common home.’ By doing so, Akayev wanted to accommodate the non-Kyrgyz living population to prevent their exodus following independence. At the same time, he started building a narrative for the Kyrgyz to help him retain his hold on power and that got a regular boost prior to the general elections the mid-1990s and early 2000s.[5]

Contrary to Uzbeks or Tajiks, Kyrgyz could not look back to a powerful empire. While different important states, such as the Karakhanids and the Kara Khitai, had occupied what is now modern day Kyrgyzstan prior to the Mongol conquest, they were not related to the Kyrgyz. Akayev decided to turn to literature instead in the form of the Epic of Manas.The narrative poem tells the adventures and struggles of Manas, a hero who battles his enemies and invaders of his land through around half a million verses. The character of Manas fits better with the nomadic heritage of the Kyrgyz than any other historical figure and benefitted the nation-building process with Manas possessing the positive attributes of a warrior, husband, father and a staunch defender of the unity of a nation against foreign enemies. Problems arose when the Kyrgyz authorities claimed that Manas as such actually existed, celebrating in 1995 its millennium anniversary and building a museum dedicated to the hero around a 14th mausoleum, where tradition says he was buried. However, the earliest manuscript of the epic dates back to the late 18th century and the plot seems to narrate events that took place in the region a century earlier.

In addition to the promotion of the Epic of Manas, whose eponymous hero now lends the name to different landmarks across the country including Bishkek’s airport and a mountain peak and whose story is represented in the flag of the country, Akayev promoted the celebration of the city of Osh’s 3,000 anniversary and the disputed 2,200 years of the Kyrgyz nation, none of which had the same repercussions as the poem.

Kazakhstan, the resurging khanate

While Kyrgyzstan had to deal with a diverse population post-independence, Kazakhstan’s case was more extreme. Kazakhstan was the only former Soviet republic where the titular nationality did not represent the majority of the population, with almost as many Russians as Kazakhs. Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, ably navigated the situation, not carrying out nationalist policies and striving for the different ethnic groups to coexist peacefully to avoid multi-ethnic conflicts.

As the years went by, the demographics in Kazakhstan changed. Emigration of non-Kazakhs coupled with the return of ethnic Kazakhs that lived in other parts of the USSR, or further away in China and Mongolia, meant that Kazakhs became by far the majority in their country. While still pursuing the policy of harmony among the different ethnicities, Kazakhstan started to look back on its founding figures. This process was probably accelerated by Vladimir Putin’s remarks in 2014, after the Russian intervention in Ukraine, in which he said that Kazakhs had never had a statehood. Nazarbayev implicitly responded the next year by celebrating the following year the 550th anniversary of Kazakh statehood, when he stated that ‘the anniversary of the Kazakh Khanate shows that the Kazakh nation and the Kazakh state have a long history.’[6]

The Kazakh Khanate that Nazarbayev alluded to was established in 1465 by Kerey and Janibek, two tribal leaders that broke away from the Uzbek Khanate. The nomadic Kazakh Khanate occupied roughly the same extension as modern day Kazakhstan and flourished in the mid-16th century after which it entered a steady decline before being incorporated into the Tsarist Empire. While the Kazakh Khanate did not have the characteristics of a modern state that Nazarbayev defended, it was the best option the government had, coupled with the promotion of the nomadic culture in the territory of Kazakhstan, through which it tried to include non-Kazakhs.  

Despite promoting the khanate through events, festivities and even films, Kazakhstan has not pushed as far as other countries have with their newly founded national myths. While Timur and Ismail Samani are strongly present in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan respectively, the Kazakh authorities have not sought the same for Kerey and Janibek. The country still has a diverse population, with a strong Russian presence in the north, and exacerbated nationalism can lead to instability.

The five Central Asian republics that emerged from the USSR had to create their own founding myths in a short period of time. In each of the countries, it was the political aims of the ruling classes that determined the national narrative the country should follow. The myths emanated from the top of the government and were promoted through state institutions, media and popular culture. While the different national identities are well established now, new rulers may seek to make minor alterations to the narratives in order to diminish their predecessor’s influence and make their own mark.

I would like to thank Almaty-based journalist Joanna Lillis for her insights on Kazakhstan’s state-building process



Photo by David Mulder, published under Creative Commons with no changes made.

[1] Bruce Pannier, Orphaned Dictator: The Making Of Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov,  RFE/RL, March 2015, https://www.rferl.org/a/the-making-of-islam-karimov-uzbekistan/26917396.html

[2] Akhilesh Pillalamarri, “The Weird Case of the Uzbek Language”, The Diplomat, February 2016, https://thediplomat.com/2016/02/the-weird-case-of-the-uzbek-language/

[3] Foltz, Richard. 2019. A History of the Tajiks. London: I.B. Tauris

[4] Marat, Erica. 2008. National ideology and state-building in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Stockholm: Silk Road Studies Program

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lillis, Joanna. 2019. Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan. London: I.B. Tauris

[post_title] => State-building myths in Central Asia [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => open [post_password] => [post_name] => state-building-myths-in-central-asia [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-11-05 15:55:54 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-11-05 15:55:54 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => https://fpc.org.uk/?p=4124 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 1 [filter] => raw ) )
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