WARSAW — Had the August 1991 putsch against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev not failed, the riots and death recently seen in Xinjiang could have been taking place in Russia. Instead of hearing about a crackdown in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, we might be reading about hundreds killed on the streets of Almaty, and columnists would be making comparisons to the bloody crushing of Ukrainian independence demonstrations in Lvov the previous year.

As with China today, there would have been some feeble international condemnation, and some speculation about possible links between Kazakh militants and exile groups, or Islamic fundamentalists. Experts would remind us that Kazakhstan had never been a country, and that Ukrainian claims to independence are historically dubious. Substitute Xinjiang for Kazakhstan and Tibet for Ukraine and you get the picture.

But that putsch, thankfully, ended as a farce. The decaying Soviet regime was unable to crush Russia’s growing democratic movement — it would take Russian President Vladimir Putin to do that a decade later. By opting for the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, the Chinese Communist leadership set their country on a road starkly different from the one on which Russia subsequently embarked.

Though China’s policies have brought about Pinochet-style economic growth, if on the scale of a country that is almost a continent unto itself, they have also ensured that there is no freedom for anyone, including the Han majority. This, in turn, means that, while Kazakhstan and Ukraine are independent, Tibet and Xinjiang alternate between phases of violent agitation and bloody repression.

Though Russia today is autocratically governed, the introduction of a Chinese-style dictatorship seems hardly plausible, while GDP per capita was $15,800 last year, or almost three times that of China. Yet a majority of the Chinese population seems to support its government’s policies, including its brutal suppression of minorities and denial of democratic freedoms.

In fact, the latter seems to be the price paid for the success of the former. This is not a novel phenomenon. In 1863, the Russian democratic thinker Alexander Herzen, commenting on the brutal crushing of the Polish uprising by the czarist army, wrote in his publication Kolokol that acceptance of violence on the streets of Warsaw meant the acceptance of violence on the streets of St. Petersburg. Oppression is a package deal. His comments cost him his Russian readership, and Kolokol had to close down.

When Herzen was writing his words, Moscow was not only busy putting down the Poles, reasserting its rule there for another half-century, but also, together with China, carving up Central Asia, known then as Turkestan. The eastern part of the region fell under Chinese rule, and was renamed Xinjiang, or New Frontier.

Each time Chinese rule weakened, as in the 1930s and 1940s, short-lived East Turkestan Republics were established, with Russian support, only to founder when Russia and China struck new deals. The leadership of the second East Turkestan Republic was presumably murdered on Stalin’s orders, when the plane carrying it to Beijing for talks allegedly crashed in Soviet airspace.

Since then, East Turkestan has existed solely on paper, as a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), a would-be competitor of the United Nations set up in 1991. In Xinjiang itself, the current agitation is more social than nationalist in character, and targets cultural oppression (Han Chinese by now make up half of the region’s population) rather than expressing aspirations for independence. Yet the recent bloodbath there is almost sure to change that, as violence unavoidably breeds radicalization.

In the short and medium term, China’s rule in Xinjiang and Tibet seems secure: the international community will not challenge a Security Council member state. Only its own citizens could do that, but Herzen’s package deal seems to prevent that: Just like the Tibetans, the Uighurs elicit not Han solidarity, but a braying for their blood — somewhat understandable, given that ordinary Han in Lhasa and Urumqi were made to pay with their own for China’s misdeeds. In the longer term, however, the Chinese authorities have every reason to be worried: Xinjiang will grow to be a problem like Tibet.

Indeed, though the UNPO, to which both belong — alongside Assyria and the Buffalo River Dene Nation — has a vaguely Marx Brothers’ air to it (one expects Freedonia, the mythical country of which Groucho Marx was prime minister, to be on the roster), six member states already have left it to join the U.N., and Kosovo, now independent if lacking U.N. recognition, will eventually follow. Political maps are never carved in stone.

It is therefore safe to assume that not only obscure academics and correspondents, but officials in Beijing as well, are now busy studying the history of the Ghulja uprising and of Osman Batur’s guerrillas. Come to think of it: Whatever happened to the Poles, whom Russia so successfully put down in 1863?

Konstanty Gebert is an essayist and author of 10 books on Polish and European history. © 2009 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

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