Kazak Campaigners Take on Russian Rockets
A campaign to ban the use of toxic rocket fuel at the Russian space base in Kazakstan is as much about nationalism as it is about environmental concerns, analysts say.
A recently-formed protest group called Halyktyk (People’s) Alliance has been campaigning against what it says are dangerous levels of pollution around the Baikonur space launch base, which Russia uses to put satellites into orbit.
Last July, an unmanned Proton-M rocket crashed shortly after lifting off from Baikonur, causing no casualties.
The rocket was carrying 600 tonnes of fuel in which one of the main constituents is heptyl, a substance associated with risks of liver damage and cancer after prolonged exposure.
Kazak officials insisted that most of the fuel was burnt off in the explosion and thus would have had no negative effects on the environment or on the 70,000-strong population of the town of Baikonur, 60 kilometres away.
However, Musagali Duambekov, a Halyktyk member who also heads the Almaty-based Ecological Fund of Kazakhstan, told IWPR that he did not believe these official reassurances. He said Kazakstan’s government was prioritising economic benefit over the health of the local population.
“In my view, the reason for playing down the real extent of the disaster is that Kazakstan receives 120 million US dollars a year for the lease on the Baikonur cosmodrome,” Duambekov said.
He said the Halyktyk Alliance’s wider agenda was to press the government to review not only the Baikonur lease, but also to shut down seven other Russian-operated test sites in Kazakstan.
Set up by a group of politicians, environmentalists and rights defenders in September, Halyktyk mounted a series of protests to coincide with the resumption of space launches, which had been suspended since the July crash.
Following a September 30 rally in Kazakstan’s second largest city Almaty, two Halyktyk members, economist Mukhtar Tayjan and opposition activist Yermek Narymbaev, were charged with organising a public gathering without advance approval, and ordered to pay fines of more than 500 dollars each.
Both Tayjan and Narymbaev denied the charge, insisting that they had only gathered to hand in a petition to the United Nations office in Almaty calling for a ban on the use of toxic fuel.
Other events organised by Halyktyk Alliance have included a conference on the harmful effects of Russian military test sites, and an October rally in the Kazak capital where demonstrators dressed in yellow protective clothing.
An official from the Russian space agency was quoted in the newspaper Izvestia as saying the protests were directed against Moscow rather than reflecting real concerns over pollution.
Tolganay Umbetalieva, director of the Central Asia Foundation for Democracy, told IWPR that the authorities had been too slow to confront environmental issues at the launch site.
Although Environment Minister Nurlan Kapparov recently called on Russia to honour environmental rules and reduce the use of toxic fuel, she said such demands should have been made long ago.
Under the terms of the lease, both the launch pad and Baikonur town are under Russian jurisdiction.
“This issue that Kazak laws are not valid on the territory of Baikonur has been raised repeatedly for a long time,” Umbetalieva said, noting that following the July crash, local environmental agencies were unable to enter the site to conduct their own testing.
“Only citizen activism has forced the [environmental] ministry in particular and the country’s leadership in general to take some kind of action,” she said. “A lot will depend on what kind of public support this [Halyktyk] movement receives and whether that threatens the stability of the political elite. If it does, then the elite will have to listen to the public mood.”
Almaty-based political analyst Zamir Karajanov told IWPR that such issues were especially sensitive in Kazakstan, where Soviet testing and other policies had come at a high human and environmental cost.
The area close to the city of Semipalatinsk in northeastern Kazakstan used to be the Soviet Union’s primary nuclear testing ground, while the Aral Sea in the south has shrunk dramatically due to overexploitation of water resources for the cotton industry.
Ultimately, though, the Halyktyk Alliance is driven by Kazak nationalism, Karajanov said.
“It is no secret that the national patriots – who if we believe the experts, have been gaining strength over the last several years – have begun paying greater attention to the Baikonur issue and incidents involving rocket crashes,” he said. “For them, the Proton is a symbol of Russia’s policy towards Kazakstan. And each incident is a good opportunity to voice protest.”
He said low-level civil society action was unlikely to harm bilateral ties, which were largely founded on the personal relationship between Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
“There is a high degree of trust between Astana and Moscow which enables them to solve complex issues in their relationship through negotiations,” he said. “I don’t think Kazakstan’s leadership is interested in closing down the launch site or in creating tension in its relations with Russia because of it.”
The Baikonur lease agreement has, nevertheless, caused some frictions over the last year. In December, Kazakstan’s space agency chief said his government wanted the Russian lease on Baikonur to end earlier than the agreed date of 2050. Later the same month, the Kazak government announced that it was restricting the number of launches to 12 in 2013, although Russia had asked for 17. Moscow responded with a note threatening to abandon the site and sue Kazakstan for breach of contract.
Moscow ultimately plans to relocate its launches to Siberia, but needs to continue using Baikonur while the two sites are being built. When Nazarbaev met Putin in February, both agreed that any remaining differences over continued use of the Baikonur base would be resolved.
Gaziza Baituova is an IWPR contributor in Kazakstan.