The Kazakhstan-based group Atajurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland) was finally registered after attempting to do so for some two years.
The organization was founded by ethnic Kazakhs originally from what is now the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China. They moved across the border to Kazakhstan as part of the Kazakh government’s program to “repatriate” ethnic Kazakhs from around the world after Kazakhstan gained independence in late 1991.
The organization was founded in 2017 and recorded and publicly reported about the detentions, incarcerations, and abuse of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang.
Something that Beijing very sternly frowned upon.
The fate of China’s Kazakhs — many thousands of whom have been forcibly taken to so-called reeducation camps — is part of a much larger campaign in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China that targets Muslims, mainly Uyghurs but also Uzbeks and even Hue (ethnic Chinese Muslims).
Atajurt tried four times to register before the Justice Ministry finally approved all the necessary documents in late September.
But exactly which Atajurt was registered by the ministry on September 24?
The person claiming to be the new head of the group is Erbol Dauletbekuly, and he sits in the organization’s office in Almaty.
However, a group that follows Bekzat Maksutkhanuly claims to be the larger and far more active faction of Atajurt. And one person who agrees is the best-known figure from the organization, Serikzhan Bilash.
So, which group is which, and what just happened?
Bilash, who has led Atajurt for the last two years, is one of the Kazakhs who left Xinjiang to become a citizen of Kazakhstan. Other Kazakhs from Xinjiang who are now in Kazakhstan welcomed Bilash’s criticism of China’s policies in Xinjiang targeting ethnic Kazakhs.
Many of them have relatives still in Xinjiang who have been caught up in Beijing’s campaign to stamp out any possibility of separatism, extremism, or terrorism. Some of these new citizens of Kazakhstan, called “oralman” in Kazakhstan, have been detained upon going back to China to visit relatives or take care of unfinished business.
Bilash’s Atajurt worked to expose these abuses — putting Kazakhstan’s government in a delicate situation.
China, Kazakhstan’s giant neighbor, has become a major trading partner and a huge investor. This fact left Kazakh authorities refraining from commenting on Xinjiang when the Uyghurs — Turkic Muslim people related to the Kazakhs — were being persecuted.
But Bilash’s group and others like them made it impossible to ignore the plight of ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang. In response, Kazakh authorities have made some tepid expressions of concern to Beijing, seemingly to appease the public’s concerns in Kazakhstan.
On March 10, Bilash was detained in an Almaty hotel and taken into custody on charges of inciting national discord or hate. On August 16, Bilash was fined the equivalent of $280 and set free on condition that he refrain from his political activism for seven years.
Bilash was sidelined, but Atajurt continued to operate — though it needed a new leader and that precipitated the recent split in the group.
Dauletbekuly admits Bilash said that Bekzat Maksutkhanuly should be the leader of Atajurt, but Dauletbekuly added that the organization is not Bilash’s private company and that many people have worked in the group.
Bilash told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service (known locally as Azattyq), that Dauletbekuly was a self-declared leader.
“They elected themselves — 99 percent of people of Atajurt support Bekzat [Maksutkhanuly], with the exception of two people,” Bilash said.
Toeing The Government Line
Those two people are Dauletbekuly and probably Kairat Baitolla, but Dauletbekuly told Azattyq he has 10 registered members and “30 to 40 supporters.”
The unregistered faction says Dauletbekuly’s group is there only for show and they will only support the government line on events in China.
There is already evidence of this.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi said on October 4 that there were no more ethnic Kazakhs in Chinese detention camps, the ones that China euphemistically calls reeducation camps.
Azattyq brought both Dauletbekuly and Maksutkhanuly to a recording studio that same day, showed them a clip of Tileuberdi making that statement, then asked each man if it was accurate.
Dauletbekuly agreed with Tileuberdi and said it was correct. Maksutkhanuly rejected it and said he could name “100 [ethnic Kazakhs]” who were currently in detention in Xinjiang.
The move to register Atajurt was initially greeted by many inside and outside of Kazakhstan.
But the facts that have emerged since then — that the registered group is led by a man who toes the government line — seem to indicate there has been some trickery here.