About a year ago, a giant Russian transport plane en route from Kazakhstan stopped in Baku, Azerbaijan, to refuel. By happenstance, airport authorities discovered that the cargo, described on the manifest as “scrap metal,” included six disassembled MiG-21 fighter aircraft. Passengers included thirty Russian airmen and military technicians, all improperly documented. Investigation revealed the MiGs were owned by Kazakhstan and were consigned to a firm in the Czech Republic for eventual delivery to North Korea. Azerbaijan let the transport and its passengers go, and eventually–at the request of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov–released the MiGs to Russia. By August, 1999, the MiGs had made their way to Pyongyang, along with thirty-two more, all from a plant in northeast Kazakhstan.
Under pressure from the United States, President Nursultan Nazarbaev promised a full investigation and vigorous prosecution. An “entrepreneur” caught with $1.8 million in cash believed to be part of the $8 million deal was indicted, tried by a military court, “amnestied,” and released from custody. The chief of staff of the armed forces, charged with complicity in the illegal transaction, was acquitted.