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Kazakhstan: The Art of Balance between China and Society

The trial over the rights activist of ethnic Kazakhs in China has shown that the authorities of Kazakhstan have to swim between Beijing and public opinion for the second time last year.


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On the night of August 16, the trial over Serikzhan Bilash, a head of Atazhurt Yeriktileri (Volunteers of Motherland), was completed in Almaty regarding his assistance to returnees and ethnic Kazakhs in China. For Kazakhstan, this trial based on political charges was held in record time – without even starting. The verdict was also a surprise – penalty less than 300 dollars.

The trial over Serikzhan Bilash was an indicator for Akorda of its dependence on the society, just like the trial over a refugee from China – ethnic Kazakh Sairagul Sauytbai.

Born in Xingjian-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), ethnic Kazakh Serikzhan Bilash received citizenship of Kazakhstan. When ethnic minorities were persecuted in western China, Bilash and his fellow thinkers created a group, Atazhurt Yeriktileri, to provide assistance to returnees.

However, amid increasing pressure on Muslims in China, Bilash increasingly criticised Beijing and, in fact, organised a campaign against the oppression of ethnic Kazakhs in XUAR. The same group did not let the extradition of refugee Sairagul Sauytbai to China and could draw the attention of world media to this situation.

On the one hand, the authorities of Kazakhstan finally opened their eyes to what was happening with its powerful neighbour, after which negotiations began to ease the situation of the Kazakh ethnic group in XUAR. On the other hand, it is obvious that Bilash has become too uncomfortable in the relationship between Nur-Sultan and Beijing.

Serikzhan Bilash was arrested on March 10, 2019 in Almaty, and immediately, without explanation, was delivered to the capital by plane. Official accusation was inciting ethnic hatred for sharp statements against China.

“Inciting hatred” is a universal article of Kazakhstan’s security services – every year it brings to justice three to five civic activists and bloggers and up to several hundred believers, mainly Muslims. It provides for serious prison times – 5 to 10 years in prison.

In the situation with Bilash, two attempts were made to bring him to justice under this article.

“Chinese agent provocateur”

On January 31, 2019, an open information letter appeared, signed by 17 representatives of the Kazakh intelligentsia, who identified themselves as national patriots.

“This situation is used by people on social networks under hidden names. They expose false, unverified information about the fate of the Kazakhs in China and add oil to the flame. We have no doubt that among them there are people working for secret institutions in China. It means that their goal is to destabilise and disturb the domestic peace in our country. Another goal is to block the return of the Kazakhs from China to their homeland. Our competent authorities should deal with this problem and they must suppress the activities of such groups,” it read.

However, in Kazakhstan, this act caused dramatic discontent with those who previously acted as defenders of the interests of ethnic Kazakhs. Then the National Security Committee reported a statement from an unidentified person regarding the statements of Bilash about China.

At the same time anonymous materials or materials signed by non-existent authors directed against Bilash appeared in some media and on certain accounts in social media. They accused the human rights activist of having ties with the United States and wrote that he had actually left China not to pay his creditors.

For almost half a year, Serikzhan Bilash was in Nur-Sultan under house arrest. The court, despite the fact that the “offense” took place in Almaty, was also held in the capital. Pre-trial hearings were held amid the outcries of several hundred of his supporters who came to the courthouse demanding to release the public figure. Then, the case was referred from Nur-Sultan to Almaty.

On August 16, again, more than a hundred supporters of Bilash and returnees who received assistance from Atazhurt Yerіktіlerі came to support the defendant.

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Supporters of Serikzhan Bilash in front of the building of Auezov District Court of Almaty. Photo: CABAR.asia

“It didn’t matter to him whether you were a Kazakh or another ethnicity. Serikzhan defended those who were persecuted in Xingjian. We also should get together to defend him,” a young man from the support group, who called himself as Bauyrzhan, said.

A prominent lawyer Aiman Umarova, who earlier defended Sairagul Sauytbai, was representing the interests of Bilash.

“Everyone in the world knows what happens in China. Do they think if they close Bilash, no one will know?” she said in the courthouse before the trial.

In half an hour the session was declared rescheduled for evening as the pre-trial hearing. At the same evening, the judge passed an extremely mild sentence during the private session.

“You all know that no one has ever seen any harm from Serikzhan Bilash but the Chinese empire. You all know it was a politically motivated case. Finally, this problem was solved with the participation of Tokayev represented by his advisor. Actually, this problem could have been solved earlier. But my pertinacity has been the obstacle,” released Serikzhan Bilash explained at the stairs of the courthouse.

“Solomon’s decision”

It was the first time in Kazakhstan when the trial over inciting hatred finished with a penalty instead of conditional or real jail time.

The similar “Solomon’s decision” was made on the case of Sairagul Sauytbai, who was accused on illegal border crossing. She was sentenced to six months of custodial restraint and allowed to apply for a refugee status. Afterwards, she was denied the status but she was allowed to go to Sweden that agreed to accept her with her family.

In China, the situation of ethnic Kazakhs has changed for the better.

“Until 2019, the situation of national minorities in China was really difficult. However, the situation has changed lately. 80 per cent of Kazakhs who were in “political re-education camps” were released,” Omarali Adilbek from another organisation helping Kazakhs in XUAR said in the interview to radio Azattyk.

On March 4 this year, the foreign minister of Kazakhstan Beibut Atamkulov voiced some figures. Just like Omarali Adilbek, he indicated that the number of Kazakhs in the camps decreased by 80 per cent. Moreover, the conditions for receiving documents for departure from China to Kazakhstan were eased (mainly for family reunion).

“In 2018, about 2,500 ethnic Kazakhs received visas to enter their motherland. This year, 33 citizens of Kazakhstan with double citizenship were detained in China.”

At a glance, Kazakhstan and China maintain warm relationship in the field of politics.

Photo: akorda.kz

On March 29, foreign minister of China Wang Yi met his Kazakhstan colleague Beibut Atamkulov and thanked him for Kazakhstan’s support of “de-radicalisation” measures in XUAR, according to Reuters.

One month later, the ex-president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, a head of the security council, was awarded with the highest award of PRC for foreigners – the order of friendship.

However, the society keeps on expressing concerns about the strengthened economic influence of China on its neighbour.

On April 11, deputies of the senate passed a law to ratify the framework agreement between the governments of Kazakhstan and China on a privileged loan provision. About 300 million dollars should be used to modernise and equip nine motor vehicle and one railway crossing points on the Kazakhstan section of the external border of EAEU.

Moreover, due to the criticism of the new president Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev it was found out that the estimated construction of light rail system was covered by a Chinese loan in the amount of 1.6 billion dollars and was supposed to be performed by a Chinese company. However, the project price was found to be overestimated and its economic prospect was found to be more than vague. This is why construction works were suspended despite completion of 15 per cent of works.

Vector specified

After the sentence to Bilash, there is a chance that one more high-profile trial will be held, where Akorda will have to reach the status quo that fits all the parties.

This time security services took interest in a prominent Kazakhstan-based political analyst and sinologist with Russian citizenship, Konstantin Syroezhkin. He is the chief research officer of Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies at the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan and Emeritus Professor of Xingjian University. Back in the day, he was chief doctoral advisor to future president Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev.

On January 15, 2019, he was arrested on charges of high treason. It’s not clear in whose favour, but taking into account that he was one of the best sinologists in the republic, the vector was specified.

KNB [State Security Committee] headed by Karim Massimov is in charge of the investigation. He used to learn Chinese language at the law school of Wuhan University and then was in charge of Kazakhstan business entities in PRC and Hong Kong.

More than a dozen of colleagues of Syroezhkin applied to president Tokayev.

However, there is still no answer.


This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.

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