In a rare show of solidarity, a large group of Kazakhstani intellectuals, writers, prominent public figures, as well as activists of diverse opposition forces and political parties released an open letter addressed to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, protesting the envisaged lease of land in Kostanay Region (northern Kazakhstan) to Russia for military use. The authors of the letter, which was published in a number of independent papers, expressed their indignation at the fact that a Russian missile launch site would be built on the “sacred land of Torgay [the historical name for Kostanay],” the birthplace of Akhmet Baitursyn and Mirzhakip Dulat. The two referenced historical figures were prominent leaders of the Alash national independence movement, which proclaimed the autonomy of the Kazakh people in December 1917, and lasted until August 1920 (Qazaquni.kz, October 26).
Symbolically, at the top of the letter’s list of signatories is the name of the popular poet Olzhas Suleymenov who, in the late 1980s, led the “Nevada-Semipalatinsk” anti-nuclear mass movement, demanding the closure of the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site, in northeastern Kazakhstan. But more explicit evidence of the rising public awareness of the proposed new Russian base on Kazakhstani territory is a protest letter sent this past summer by residents of Kostanay Region to Prime Minister Bakitzhan Sagintayev and Defense Minister Beibit Atamkulov. The letter stresses that the authorities of the province are not heeding the public outcry and are ignoring the ecological disaster local Russian missile launches would likely cause (Tobyl-torgai.kz, July 12).
The government’s plans to lease 100 hectares of land in Zhangeldin and Amangeldy districts of Kostanay province to Russia for a military range were initially kept secret from the public. But news leaked to the press in February of last year, when a photocopy of the document obtained from the Kostanay regional department of environment protection was posted to Facebook. Local officials hastened to explain that “only unusable, non-agricultural saline lands” would be made available to the Russian military (Kostanay.tv, February 28).
According to Marat Shibutov, a member of the Association for Cross-Border Cooperation, Kazakhstan currently hosts five Russian military ranges and testing sites. They include the Saryshagan missile testing ground on Balkhash Lake, the Baikonur space launch site in Kyzylorda Region, the Taisoygan flight test center (one of several Soviet-era nuclear test sites once located in Kazakhstan) in Atyrau Region, as well as two military facilities in West Kazakhstan used to test Russian missile defense systems (365info.kz, November 30, 2016).
Kazakhstani media routinely report of stray missiles, fired from adjacent Kapustin Yar test range in Russia’s Astrakhan region, falling on West Kazakhstan. But what worries most Kazakhstani residents are the frequent failures of Proton-type Russian rockets launched from Baikonur. On July 2, 2013, a Proton-M space rocket deviated from its trajectory and crashed to the ground a few seconds after launch. All technical service personnel were immediately evacuated from the ground as a toxic cloud, believed to be evaporated heptil, a highly toxic rocket fuel, rose over the crash site. Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Emergency Situations warned the populations living in nearby settlements of heptil’s dangerous toxicity and offered to relocate them to safe places. But Talgat Musabayev, Moscow-educated Soviet-era cosmonaut of Kazakhstan who now heads the country’s space agency, KazCosmos, dismissed these warnings at a cabinet meeting. Musabayev argued that heavy rain minimized the harmful effects of the heptil cloud. He added that local authorities of Kyzylorda region had no legal grounds to set up a commission into the disaster because the rocket fell on the territory of Baikonur and did not contaminate neighboring territories (Interfax, July 2, 2013). As in the majority of similar cases, the Russian authorities refused to compensate Kazakhstan for the damage.
The complacent attitude exhibited by the head of KazCosmos angered activists of the “Antiheptil” protest movement. They accused Musabayev of betraying Kazakhstan’s national interests. Moreover, Antiheptil members staged a protest rally in front of the Russian embassy in Astana and handed a petition addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, demanding a ban on further Proton rocket launches. The activists threatening to resort to “more radical” actions if their demands are not met. They also honored the memory of Vladimir Popovkin—the former head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos—who, according to a medical investigation, died from cancer after inhaling poisonous heptil vapors at the July 2013 crash site (Diapazon.kz, July 3, 2014).
Recent developments show Kazakhstanis are hardening their attitude against leasing local land to Russia for military purposes. And there is some limited evidence to suggest that Moscow is yielding to public pressure. In July, Putin ratified a protocol to return the 300,000-hectare Emba military range back to Kazakhstan. In line with the bilateral agreement signed in 1998, Kazakhstan annually received $718,000 from Moscow for the lease on this property. Some Russian officials claimed that the decision to abandon the Emba military base was taken in response to serious financial pressure on the state budget (Sputniknews.kz), July 2).
Kazakhstan is committed to military cooperation with Russia by its membership in the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In 2013, Kazakhstan and Russia concluded a number of agreements on military and technical cooperation and on a unified air defense system. After 25 years independence, Kazakhstan still lacks sufficient modern technology and qualified specialists to develop a domestic military industry; as a result, it continues to heavily rely on Russia for military equipment and officer training. But Astana is paying a high price for this cooperation with Moscow.