Kazakhstan lifted the ban on Russian rocket launches from the launching-pad at Baikonur on September 1, ending a two-month stand-off between the two countries. The decision bodes ill for the resolution of the far more serious issue of the nuclear pollution caused by tests during the Soviet era, which is still killing hundreds of Kazakhs every year and which is expected to do so for generations to come. The ban had raised hopes that the Kazakh government was finally taking the issue of pollution seriously and was prepared to stand up to the Russians over it.
Russia relies heavily on the Baikonur launching-pad - built when Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union - for its manned space programme and commercial and military satellite launches. Kazakhstan banned rocket launches on July 6, after a Proton rocket exploded shortly after blast-off, scattering debris and fuel over a wide area. Kazakhstan initially voiced concern over the environmental and health implications of the accident, but later demanded payment of hundreds of millions of dollars that Russia owes it for the lease of the site.
The lifting of the ban, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the first nuclear test in Semipalatinsk, northern Kazakh-stan, shows that president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration is not really concerned about the pollution or the plight of the victims of more than 40 years of indiscriminate Russian nuclear tests.
One way of forcing Moscow to recognise its share of responsibility would have been to withhold permission to use the Baikonur launching-pad, without which its valued space-programme would have come to a halt. But with permission given so quickly and Russia having a 20-year lease on the launch-pad under a 1994 agreement with Kazakhstan, Moscow is not only free to pollute for years to come but also is under no pressure to admit its role in the more lethal nuclear disaster at Semipalatinsk and begin to pay for repairing the ravages.
Semipalatinsk was built in 1946 after Stalin ordered that a ‘remote area’ of Kazakhstan be found where Russian scientists could build an atomic bomb. The site chosen was deliberately far removed from Russia and other European republics of the Soviet Union, and the assembled scientists did not include Kazakhs or other Soviet Muslims. Unfortunately it was not remote from Kazakhstan, and was, moreover, in a windswept part of the country. As a result the entire Semipalatinsk region has been blighted by the fall-out from successive tests.
The first bomb was detonated on August 29, 1949, making the Russian-controlled Soviet Union the world’s second nuclear power. Over the next 40 year, more than 500 bombs were detonated in the region, making it a nuclear disaster-area. Not only are the region’s lakes now ‘atomic’, but the soil is contaminated, making agricultural produce potentially lethal.
According to the Medical Council of Semipalatinsk, 80 percent of the region’s 1.2 million people suffer from weak immune systems. The incidence of congenital deformities is nearly four times higher than normal. There are 430 cancers per 100,000 people compared to only 236 in the neighbouring Beskaragay region. Eighty percent of Semipalatinsk’s population has anaemia. And according to a report by the UN Development Program, the rates of blood disease and cardiovascular defects are 30 percent higher than the national average, and mental retardation is twice as high. The deaths and devastation caused by this catalogue of disease will not decline in the near future. Informed estimates are that the appalling level of illness causing them may end only five or six generations from now.
In the meantime, Kazakhstan cannot afford to carry out the very expensive job of clearing up after nuclear weapons. The National Nuclear Centre of Kazakhstan cannot even afford to make a complete assessment of the plutonium in the radiation area. So far, it has taken only 400 samples, but it needs to take 6,000 to do the full job. The lack of interest in the issue shown by Nazarbayev’s administration will not help it to perform the necessary task.
The Kazakh government can no longer blame Russia for its own failure to pursue the matter with the seriousness it merits. The Soviet Union having collapsed in 1989, and Kazakhstan having declared its independence on December 16, 1991, Nazarbayev happens to be in full control. It is true that the Russians stayed at the nuclear installations in Kazakhstan until 1995, but the president has still had four years to set an agenda for addressing the problems and seeking the external funds needed for the purpose.
Nazarbayev could, for instance, have involved the US, which showed so much interest in dispossessing his country of the nuclear weapons on its territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union. US military personnel helped the departing Russians to remove the warheads and destroy their silos, but did nothing to address the problem of Kazakhstan’s polluted land and poisoned population.
The Russians have particular responsibility for the catastrophe. Russian scientists were in charge of the tests and Russian officials were callously uninterested in the effects of their work. When a team of doctors assessed the rate of disease in Semipalatinsk to be excessive in 1957, its head, Dr Saim Balmukhanov, was dismissed from his post and banned from visiting the region again. The ministry of defense’s response to Balmukhanov’s effort was merely to say that it was hardly surprising that the Kazakhs were sick as they were an ignorant people who lived in dirt and ate bad food.
In these circumstances, it is obscene for Nazarbayev to give Russia permission to resume use once of the Baikonur launching-pad for its space-programme and commercial and military launches - and that days after the 50th anniversary of the first Soviet nuclear test in Semipalatinsk. His government did not even mark this significant anniversary. Declaring August 20 a day of mourning would not have sounded an exaggerated response and could have been a powerful message of national protest.
Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1999