Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 133

A Russian Proton-K booster rocket, carrying a Raduga-1 military intelligence satellite, went off trajectory and exploded on July 6, minutes after liftoff from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur space center. Debris from the rocket and its highly toxic fuel–containing the dangerous heptyl compound–were strewn over a semidesert area of Kazakhstan’s Karagandy region. No residents were hit, but the Kazakhstani authorities and public are seriously concerned about contamination from the toxic substances which are believed to have seeped into the soil and local lakes. That and other areas of Kazakhstan, situated under the flight path of ex-Soviet and, more recently, Russian rockets, show severe cumulative ecological damage from fallout and debris.

With President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Foreign Minister Kasymzhomart Tokaev currently out of the country–in Turkey and China, respectively–the government of Nurlan Balgymbaev is handling the situation adroitly. In a protest note to Moscow within hours of the explosion, the Foreign Ministry demanded an immediate investigation and compensation for the environmental damage. A Kazakhstani special commission under Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Pavlov began the investigation at the site on July 7. The government has suspended all space launches from Baikonur. The latter measure affects three scheduled Russian launches, including the Russian-Ukrainian launch of a Zenith rocket with a cargo destined for the Mir space station.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry officially expressed its regrets to Kazakhstan, promising that Moscow will cooperate with the investigation and pay compensation for the ecological damage. But Russia’s Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, Aviation and Space Agency Director Yuri Koptev, presidential adviser on space issues Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, and the Foreign Ministry are in their public statements–even before the investigation began–attempting to brush aside the notion that any substantial damage was inflicted on Kazakhstan. They seek, moreover, to pressure that country into lifting the suspension on Russian launches from Baikonur. Stepashin even stated that he is “more worried by a locust plague reaching Russia from Kazakhstan” than he is about the Russian rocket’s toxic fallout.

It was not until July 9 that the Russian side joined the investigation. Even then, however, it failed to provide the Kazakhstani side with the telemetric data which would facilitate locating the rocket’s debris in the Kazakhstani steppe and estimate the toxic fallout. Kazakhstan’s Pavlov has publicly criticized the Russian side for the uncooperative attitude and termed “not normal” the relations between the Russian and Kazakhstani sides of the investigative commission. Balgymbaev similarly observed that “the Russian side is very slow to respond to Kazakhstan’s demarches” and “does not seem particularly concerned” (Habar news agency, Kazakhstani Television, Kazakhstanskaya pravda, AP, Reuters, Itar-Tass, Russian TV, ORT, July 7-11).