(3 of 3)
The Chinese campaign against Uighurs has intensified since 2009, when riots in Xinjiang between Uighurs, China's Han majority and jittery security forces resulted in the deaths of some 200 people. Since then, China has used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a security group that also includes Central Asian nations and Russia, to garner international support for what human-rights groups call systematic ethnic repression. In May, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan held SCO-sponsored military drills with China aimed at combatting what Beijing dubs "East Turkestan terrorist forces." Though China claims the existence of major Uighur terrorist groups, foreign academics doubt their reach and size. "China is trying to convince the world that we are all terrorists," says Abdureshit Turdiev, a Uighur community leader in Almaty. "But all most of us want is dignity and freedom to practice our traditions."
In June the SCO held its 10th-anniversary summit in Kazakhstan. Shortly before the SCO meeting, Uighurs with Kazakh citizenship were prevented from leaving the country to attend a Uighur conference in Washington. (The same thing happened in Kyrgyzstan.) Then Ershidin Israil, a Uighur who escaped to Kazakhstan from China in 2009 and was initially granted U.N. refugee status to resettle in Sweden, was deported back to the People's Republic, a pattern of forced Uighur repatriation that has been repeated across Central Asia. Ershidin was officially charged in June with terrorism; the U.N. revoked his refugee status earlier in the year. But his relatives in Kazakhstan say he is no radical. The Washington-based nonprofit media group Radio Free Asia believes the 38-year-old is being punished for talking to it, particularly about the security crackdown following the 2009 riots. "We have no word where Ershidin is now," says his sister-in-law Asiye Kerimova. "But I am sure we will never see him again."
Back in Atyrau, a dusty Chinese flag flutters on the side of a broad Soviet-era avenue. Yet even though Kazakhstan is pumping ever more oil, the number of foreign flags flying in the country's oil capital is falling. In May, Royal Dutch Shell shut its offices in Atyrau, putting on hold its development of the offshore Kashagan field, the world's biggest such oil discovery in more than 20 years. The following month a Norwegian company also pulled out of Kashagan. Western companies are wrangling over costs with the Kazakh government, which appears keen for the state to control greater percentages of the country's oil wealth. Kazakh Oil and Gas Minister Sauat Mynbayev has cast doubt on the plan of a Western consortium of firms from the U.S., Russia, Britain and Italy to develop another major oil-and-gas field called Karachaganak.
Other potential partners are waiting in the wings. A U.S. embassy cable from Astana in January 2010 disseminated by WikiLeaks described a former Kazakh oil-company vice president confiding that Chinese and Russian interests "'continue to circle like vultures,' hoping that the Kashagan and Karachaganak consortia will implode, and then they can pick up the pieces." Makhambet Khakimov, head of local environmental NGO Caspian Nature, speculates on why the Chinese bid for the refinery refurbishment was $2 billion lower than the competing foreign tenders. "What will lose out? Our ecology. Our workforce," he says. "If there are so many countries interested in our oil, we should play them against each other to get the best deal for the Kazakh people, not make them victims." A Great Game may turn on rival foreign powers, but its outcome depends also on the cunning of local players. Kazakhstan's tale of international intrigue has only just begun.