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Kazak Weapons Scandals

The Kazak authorities are believed to be involved in a series of illegal weapons sales
By Dosym Satpaev

Another year, another arms scandal in Kazakstan. This time over an AN-12 military transport plane, valued at $200,000 and sold to a Russian firm as scrap metal for a fraction of the price.


The AN-12 - formerly owned by the Kazak government - used to be based at Krainy airport, next to the Baikonur space station. Why the fully functioning and reliable plane was subsequently sold for scrap before finding its way to the Congo remains a mystery.


This is not the first case of Kazak military equipment and arms unaccountably turning up abroad.


Following the fall of the USSR, Kazakstan inherited substantial quantities of Soviet weaponry. Now ranked as the third largest arms exporter, behind Russia and the Ukraine, the country has been hit by a series of illegal sales scandals since the mid-1990s.


The recent killing of Talghat Ibraev, the director of the state enterprise Kazspetsexport - which has been involved in arms exports - is widely believed to signal a struggle for control of the arms trade. "Ibraev knew the market and made contacts. It's possible that he got in the way of someone's interests abroad," said the former Defence Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev.


Other arms sale scandals include the Defense Ministry's 1995 attempt to export the Strela ground-to-air missile system to Yugoslavia despite an international embargo.


The following year, the state military company Ulan, then headed by Ibraev, tried to sell anti-aircraft cannons to North Korea. The sale was prevented by Russian customs officials who seized the cargo on the Russian-Korean border.


In 1999, the US Congress's leading expert on anti-terrorism, Yusef Bodanski, claimed the international terrorist Osama bin Laden had attempted to buy nuclear materials in Kazakstan for $3,000,000. Kazak officials denied the charge. The director of the country's Agency for Atomic Energy, Timur Jantakin, did confirm, however, that there had been several bids to illegally obtain uranium.


But the biggest scandal of all was the 1999 sale to North Korea of 38 old MiG-21 fighter planes.


Under US pressure, the Kazak authorities investigated the case. And early this year, Army chief Bakhytjan Yertaev, state factory owner Askar Gabdullin and influential businessman and weapons exporter, Alexander Petrenko, were put on trial, accused of trading in military planes.


It was no great surprise when all three were released; Yertaev and Gabdullin for lack of evidence, Petrenko under a special amnesty.


In an apparent sop to the US, President Nursultan Nazarbaev sacked Altynbaev and the head of Special Services Nurtai Abykaev, believed to be the most influential politician in the country. But both were soon back in power, incurring the public displeasure of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, during her visit to Central Asia last month.


When Albright made her displeasure known to Nazarbaev, he warned the US not to interfere in internal Kazak affairs. The episode increased suspicion that Astana has something to hide. Certainly, most western and Kazak experts believe that the MiG sale could only have been carried out with the knowledge of the political leadership.


Analysts believe not only powerful groups within the leadership but also low level bureaucrats are involved in illegal arms sales.


The former concern themselves with the sale of large consignments of military hardware worth millions of dollars. According to Petrenko, these groups are currently fighting over the spoils of the weapons racket, "The market for arms exports in Kazakstan hasn't yet been divided up. We're talking about the division of influence and control of financial flows."


The latter, managers of small enterprises responsible for servicing old military equipment, deal in spare parts and the occasional plane or tank.


So far there has been no attempt by the government to police or regulate the arms business precisely because its benefits outweigh the bad publicity it provokes.


Dosym Satpaev is IWPR's project editor in Kazakstan.


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