Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Urumchi Events Suggest Turkic Identities May Be Greater Threat to Russia than Islamic Ones, Moscow Expert Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, July 15 – Clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Urumchi suggest that pan-Turkic identities may turn out to be a more significant threat to the Russian Federation and its interest in stability than the spread of radical Islam because “Turkic language peoples live not only in Central Asia but in Russia as well,” according to a leading Moscow specialist.
In a comment reported by “Vremya novostei” today, Yakov Berger, a senior Chinese specialist at the Institute of the Far East of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that “ethnic, social and political stability” in Xinjiang is “as it has been in the past important for Russia” lest instability spread across the border (
Berger who has written frequently about the minorities in China added that in his view, “the problem of Xinjiang Pan-Turkism can turn out to be more important than the threat of the distribution of radical Islam” because there are Turkic minorities on both sides of the border and what happens in one place can affect others.
That is all the more likely, he continued, because “there are problems in all the countries in the region, and ‘if [as the Chinese foreign ministry now insists] disorders are possible in Chinese Xinjiang as a result of support from the outside, then why could they not break out in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan?”
And he mentions what could be the trigger for exactly that: If China adopts too tough an approach to ethnic minorities like the Uyghurs, then there could be a repetition of the situation in the early 1960s when in response to Mao’s harsh crackdown non-Han refugees fled Xinjiang into the USSR.
“There would not be anything good if now [members of the same groups] were to flee into neighboring Central Asian states,” Berger suggested.
The “Vremya novostei” article in which Berger’s remarks are featured appeared in the wake of an angry exchange of words between Beijing and Ankara. A few days ago, Turkish Prime Minister Redjep Taiip Erdogan said that Chinese actions against the Turkic Uyghurs were “a genocide” and promised to raise the issue at the UN Security Council.
In response to Erdogan’s comments and criticism from Europe and the Muslim world, Tsin Gan, an official representative of the Chinese foreign ministry, said that “foreign forces” were behind the clashes that claimed at least 184 lives and called for an end to foreign support for “terrorism, extremism and separatism” in Xinjiang.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Muslims in Russia appear to share Berger’s perspective even though most of the Moscow media has picked up on the Islamist theme either in response to Chinese claims or out of a desire to justify Moscow’s harsh crackdown without risking significant criticism from Western governments.
One Muslim rights activist in Russia, Kamilzhan Kalandarov, says that nationalism rather than Islamism is the primary motive force in Eastern Turkestan. In fact, he argues, “in the Chinese-Uyghur conflict, the religious factor plays [only] the role of one of the identifiers of national self-consciousness” (
And he points out that “the ideas of political Islam were never popular among Uyghurs and that the local branch of Al Qaeda – the ‘Front for the Liberation of Eastern Turkestan’ – occupies an extremely insignificant segment within the national movement” in that region to this day.
Instead, he continues, what is behind the conflict there is “an entire complex of ethno-political and economic problems,” reflecting the Uyghur’s lack of their own statehood and the divisions of that community “among various now independent states,” a situation that has created “a psychological complex which actively promotes radical nationalism.”
But unfortunately, Kalandarov says, the Chinese do not understand that their efforts to “solve” these ethnic challenges by moving in members of the dominant nationality will only make the situation more explosive and long lasting, as the cases of Kosovo and Iraqi Kurdistan demonstrate.
Nonetheless, as the “Vremya novostei” article points out, most Russian commentary so far is focusing not on this ethnic dimension but rather on the Islamist one. (For a thorough discussion of this aspect of the conflict, see Dmitry Nechitaylo’s “Al-Qaeda in China” at
But regardless of which side of this argument is correct – and Berger and Kalandarov certainly appear to have the upper hand – the Russian government has joined its Shanghai Cooperation Organization in calling for the Chinese authorities to use all available means to maintain order.
That has attracted some attention internationally. What has not may be even more important: Next week, the Russian and Chinese militaries will take part in a joint “anti-terrorist” exercise “Peace Mission 2009, five days of maneuvers that will involve approximately 3,000 soldiers and officers on the ground in northeastern China (

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