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[OPINION] What Turkey’s elections could mean for Uyghurs

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*Kuzzat Altay

Turkey is holding presidential and parliamentary elections this Sunday. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has ruled the country as president since 2014, is on the ballot, seeking re-election. So is the destiny of the Uyghurs.

The Uyghurs are a Turkic people whose homeland is East Turkistan. Uyghurs are being subjected to a genocide perpetrated by China, as a result of which many of them had to flee their homeland and take refuge in Turkey, the Turkic “homeland.”

But Uyghurs can no longer take it for granted that Turkey is a safe haven for them due to its increasingly tight relationship with China.

Turkey is in a full-blown economic crisis. Its official inflation rate in April was around 44 percent, while the current unemployment rate stands at 10 percent. The cost-of-living crisis in the country is significant and will influence the voters’ choices in the elections. No candidate in the election—particularly Erdoğan—can ignore this.

But this is where things get complicated for the Uyghurs. Turkey’s economy, like that of many other nations, is becoming increasingly reliant on China. Meanwhile, China sees its own Uyghur minority—its religion and culture, especially—as a threat. Thus, while improvement of Turkish-Chinese relations will be vital to Turkey’s economic growth, such relations could very well come at the expense of the further oppression of the Uyghurs.

Walking a tightrope

As Ankara grows more economically dependent on Beijing, it becomes less capable of taking a strong stance against the oppression of the Uyghur minority that Beijing feels so threatened by.

Then-prime minister Erdoğan in 2009 described the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) persecution of Uyghurs as a “genocide,” and he paid a visit to East Turkistan in 2012, being the first Turkish leader to visit the region in almost three decades.

As I wrote in a Foreign Policy article in 2021, this “[drew] the wrath of Beijing,” and cemented his reputation “as a defiant Muslim leader willing to speak truth to totalitarian power.”

A decade seems like a lifetime given how much the CCP has encroached on Uyghur rights in just about every aspect of life. By now, much of the world has heard of the millions of Uyghurs being rounded up into concentration camps in East Turkistan (though no one seems to be doing much about it).

Beijing says those in the camps are being cleansed of extremism and taught how to be good citizens. And that they’re free to leave whenever they like. As someone whose father was interned, tortured and released from a Chinese concentration camp with a broken leg, I can assure you these camps are nothing but prisons that enable ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Yet Uyghur repression didn’t start with the camps. Even when Erdoğan was in East Turkistan, many Uyghurs were trying to get out. They saw Erdoğan’s visit as a gesture of solidarity. So when my family decided to leave China in 2012, moving to Turkey made sense, especially considering how the country offered Uyghurs asylum as early as 1952.

Changing fortunes for the Uyghurs

Unfortunately, what seemed like a good idea in 2012 turned out to be a false hope. Erdoğan’s authoritarian efforts to keep power in Turkey by muzzling the free press and locking up dissidents have made him an uneasy ally for liberal democracies. This has only encouraged him to look to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese dictator Xi Jinping all the more while grappling with a floundering economy.

Tragically, this often translates into changing Ankara’s policy toward 35,000 Uyghurs in Turkey. From being a safe haven for Uyghurs, Turkey has often engaged in outright repression of them in its attempt to be in Beijing’s good graces. Most Uyghurs have found it much harder to get residence permits or citizenship since 2014. They can’t make a living but risk being interned if they go back to East Turkistan. China also refused to renew their passports. Gradually, a Turkish government that was supposed to offer them freedom is now raiding Uyghur homes, arresting hundreds of people and coordinating deportations with Beijing.

But there are other reasons for Erdoğan’s friendlier stance toward China. The Turkish lira was already in trouble before the pandemic weakened the country’s tourism industry. Ankara needs China’s help. Erdoğan’s son-in-law and then-finance minister Berat Albayrak made a deal with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) for a $3.6 billion loan package in 2018. The People’s Bank of China gave $1 billion in cash to Ankara in 2019 to help stabilize its faltering economy, and China also became Turkey’s biggest importer last year. China has since cooled on how much it is willing to loan Turkey, especially in light of its economic downturn. Erdoğan doesn’t want to jeopardize this cash flow with rhetoric about the Uyghurs that will anger his Chinese patrons.

Political maneuvering

Erdoğan is a wily politician who exploits every occasion to build on his global reputation as a gutsy champion of oppressed Muslims. He never misses a chance to wax poetic about how Israel or France or even the European Union contributes to the tragedies of the ummah, the Muslim community.

Erdoğan and his government have seemingly taken a harder stance against Beijing in recent months and years as well in the wake of the increasing repression of the Uyghurs. In response to China imposing much tighter restrictions on foreign visits to East Turkistan, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, said in December, “Why should we become a tool for China’s propaganda?” Turkey has also spoken out on behalf of the Uyghurs on the international stage.

Çavuşoğlu has even admitted that Turkey’s relationship with China has been strained due to Turkey’s defense of the rights of the Uyghur Turks before the international community. But he’s also promised that Turkey will never extradite Uyghur Turkish citizens to China, no matter the level of pressure imposed on them by the CCP. At the same time, many have questioned whether these actions were merely PR stunts intended to sway the election in Erdoğan’s favor.

It must therefore be hard for Erdoğan to refrain from citing Chinese oppression of Uyghurs to keep up appearances as the world’s greatest defender of Muslims. But his ability to do so is decreased as Beijing tightens the leash around his neck, and his economy increasingly relies on the CCP’s largesse.

Turkey’s grasp of these lessons has turned it from a country that all Uyghurs admired into a place from which thousands of Uyghurs now want to flee.

Are Erdoğan and his government sincere about their defense of Uyghurs? There are reasons to seriously question whether they are. The results of the elections will be decisive. If Erdoğan wins, his sincerity toward the Uyghurs will become obvious soon enough.

*Kuzzat Altay is a leading Uyghur American businessman, tech entrepreneur and human rights activist. He is the founder and CEO of Cydeo and a Harvard Business alum. He previously served as president of the Uyghur American Association.

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