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Uyghurs in Kazakhstan

Across the Border: Uyghurs in Kazakhstan. A film documenting the situation of the minority Uyghur group in Kazakhstan. (2009. Running time: 35 minutes)


Minorities in Kazakhstan

The typical image of Kazakhstan, as emphasised in many official discourses, is that of a multiethnic country. Kazakhstan gained the name "planet of 100 nationalities" in Soviet propaganda, due to the multitude of nationalities living on its territory. This documentary describes the situation of one of the most discussed minorities in Kazakhstan, the Uyghurs. Uyghurs account for just 1.53% of the Kazakh population1. However, due to the relation between Uyghurs and China and internal Kazakh policies towards non-Kazakh nationalities, this minority constitutes a very delicate issue for the political leadership of Kazakhstan.

Migration in the Soviet Era

Kazakhstan, which was conquered by Russia in the 18th century, became a Soviet Republic in 1936. The Soviet era brought significant immigration, due in part to the considerable expanse of the Kazakh territory and its relatively sparse population density, as well as the fact that some of the bigger Soviet labour camps were built in the country. During this time, several minority groups (including Koreans, Germans, Poles, Chechens, or Ingush) were deported to these camps during the 1930s and 1940s, under the official accusation of being traitors. Many Soviet citizens, mainly Slavs and Europeans, also fled to Kazakhstan, during the course of the Second World War, in order to escape the advancing German army.

By the late 1950s, the country had become a destination for Soviet pioneers to “conquer” under the Virgin Lands Campaign (tselina), an ambitious plan initiated by Nikita Khrushchev with the aim of developing opening up vast areas of ‘virgin’ territories for grain production. The Kazakhs, on the other hand, were decimated during the Stalin period, as sedentarisation and collectivisation had disastrous effects on the nomad population2.

Ethnic Tensions in the Post-Soviet Era

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new nations based on ethnic elements, the presence of minorities in Kazakhstan has become problematic for the Kazakh political elite. By the 1990s the Kazakhs were no longer a majority ethnic group, threatening the legitimacy of the Kazakh political elite3.

Since the first years of independence, post-Soviet Kazakhstan has conducted an ambiguous political discourse over the presence of national minorities on its territory. On one side, the political leadership has guaranteed Kazakhstani citizenship to all ex-Soviet residents. Moreover, it has promoted a positive image of its country, stressing the friendly and tolerant character of the Kazakhs, and their acceptance of the different cultures and religions of other national groups. Particular emphasis is given to the fact that Kazakhs and non-Kazakhs shared a common past under the occupation of the Soviets.

On the other side, the political leadership has supported discriminating linguistic and demographic policies4, as well as encouraging the promotion of ethnic Kazakhs in the public sector. Positive discourses repeated in official speeches, such as tolerance and harmony granted by the Kazakhs to the minorities, reveal in fact a subtle political game giving more importance to ethnicity, to the detriment of full citizenship, as well as civil rights.

As Saule Mukhametrakhimova points out in this documentary, the political leadership has proved to be very pragmatic in keeping a delicate balance between the concessions granted to national minorities (mostly related to culture and folklore) and a tight control over any initiatives which could undermine the Kazakh hegemony. Such a policy is accepted at the street level due to a fear of potential interethnic conflicts, reinforced in 2010 by violence in Kyrgyzstan. These events have caused tensions between the political group and the minorities, especially those with family ties in Kyrgyzstan, and have led to tightened controls over the non-Kazakh population, included the Uyghurs.

The Uyghur Community

The Uyghur minority started to settle in today’s Kazakh territory in the 19th century, following an agreement with the Tsarist empire granting them refuge from the Qing conquest of Dzhungaria. Since then, the Uyghur community has been concentrated in the South Eastern regions of Kazakhstan, living mainly in ethnically homogeneous settlements. Many villages or towns inhabited by this minority, repeat the Uyghur names of the towns they left on the other side of the border. For instance, Dzharkent, situated near the border with China, or the villages around Almaty.

During the 20th century, new migration flows from Xinjiang increased the Uyghur presence again. Significant influxes occurred in 1949, after the fall of the short-lived Republic of East Turkestan, and again in 1962, when the political and ideological tensions between the Soviet Union and communist China were accompanied by an increase in oppression by the Chinese government over the Turkic minorities. As a result of repeated migratory flows and of Soviet politics, aimed at involving (at least on paper) all nationalities in the construction of the Soviet people, the Uyghurs, while never forgetting the dream of autonomy beyond the Kazakh, started to view Kazakhstan as a home state5.

The more insular minority groups in Kazakhstan are often viewed with suspicion by the political leadership and the press and can be treated as potentially destabilizing elements by the local authorities. For the Uyghurs in particular, China’s repressive policies in the neighbouring region of Xinjiang, tend to influence Kazakh policies at home. Kazakhstan's close economic and political relationship with China (both countries are part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) has caused trouble for the Uyghur community. Uyghurs are often described as extremists, separatists and terrorists. In light of such claims, Kazakhstan has often refused protection to Chinese citizens of Uyghur ethnicity, fleeing from persecution6. Moreover, the fact that many Uyghurs consider themselves to be natives of Kazakhstan, has created a belief in some sectors that Uyghur groups claim sovereignty over some Kazakh territories as well7.

Uyghurs and the other minorities in Kazakhstan, live today in a sort of limbo. They can do business, study their native language and organize cultural events, provided they do not interfere with politics and accept limited freedom of thought and tight State control. This situation gives minorities the opportunity to survive as a community and enjoy stability, unlike in the neighbouring countries, but it does not grant them the status of full citizens.

Giulia Panicciari, PhD candidate University of Turin, Italy, August 2010

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Filmed: May – October 2009

Alternative Formats


1. Data from January 2009, provided to me by the akimat (municipality) in Almaty. The last census was taken in 2009 but has not been published yet. The figures from January 2009 show that the Kazakhs living in Kazakhstan are 61.47%, the Russians are 24.52% and the remaining 15% include in order of quantity, Uzbeks (2.94%), Ukrainians (2.68%), Uyghurs (1.53%), Tatars (1.44%), Germans (1.40%), Koreans (0.66%), and other minority groups.

2. It is estimated that about 40% of the entire nomad population died in the 30s. Abylkhozhin, cited in Shirin Akiner “The formation of the Kazakh identity from tribe to Nation-State”, London, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1995, p. 45.

3. According to the last Soviet census, dating 1989, the Kazakhs were 39.7% of the entire population in Kazakhstan. From Gorkomstat Respubliki Kazakhstan, Itogi vsesoyuznoy perepisi naseleniya 1989 g. Tom 2 , Alma-Ata, Respublikansky informatsionny-izdatel'sky tsentr, 1991.

4. An example for this is the State program aimed at encouraging the return of the Kazakhs diaspora (oralmany) from the neighbouring states, in order to achieve the demographic superiority of the Kazakh population. Such a program gives support to the Kazakh diaspora to come back to the country, as well as guarantees automatic citizenship only to ethnic Kazakhs.

5. See by Natsuko Oka in her study on interethnic relations, on the exemple of Russians, Koreans, and Uyghurs in Kazakhstan. See N. Oka, “The triadic nexus” in Kazakhstan: A comparative study of Russians, Uighurs and Koreans, pp. 368-373, in Ieda, Osamu et al. eds., Beyond Sovereignty: from status law to transnational citizenship?, Sapporo, Japan: Slavic Research Centre, Hokkaido University, 2006, pp. 359-380.

6. See the Human Rights Report of Kazakhstan, accessible online at, last accessed in August 2010, and N. Oka, 2006, p. 370.

7. This has also been confirmed on many occasions during my stay in Kazakhstan. It happens often that my non-Uyghur interlocutors describe the Uyghurs as trouble-makers and as separatists claiming south-eastern Kazakh territories. See also N. Oka, ibidem.

creative commons logo (CC) BY-NC-ND This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Photograph of Uyghurs in Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2009.

Uyghurs in Almaty, Kazakhstan, 2009.

Photo: © S L James

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Director: S L James

Producers: S L James and Enver Tohti


Saule Mukhametrikimova 
(IWPR, London)

Maisy Weicherding 
(Amnesty International, London)

Makhinur Hazanova 
(Swedish Uyghur Committee, Stockholm)

Raimjan Hamrayev 
(Almaty, Kazakhstan)

Last updated Jun 09, 2011