Kazakhstan To Take More Control Of Baikonur From Russia
Kazakhstan wants more control over the town and cosmodrome of Baikonur, now largely controlled by Russia, the country's space agency chief said in an interview. His comments are the latest move in the effort by an increasingly assertive Kazakhstan to renegotiate the terms of its ties with Russia, of which the most symbolic manifestation has been the wrangling over the legendary Baikonur site.
Baikonur was the Soviet Union's main space launch site, and continues to play that role for the Russian space program although it lies within the territory of Kazakhstan. And as a legacy of the Soviet era, Moscow continues to control Baikonur. But Talgat Musabayev, the head of Kazakhstan's National Space Agency, told Russian newspaper Izvestia that his country wanted more control over Baikonur. Musabayev said that under the previous leadership of the Russian space agency, he didn't even have permission to go to Baikonur, but that the situation has recently gotten better. Still, he said, Kazakhstan wants to formalize its rights so it doesn't depend on who is in charge in Russia:
Finally, we are able to visit the territory of our own cosmodrome, located in our country. Until this the conversation was short: "We won't let you and that's final; it's a secret 'object.'" But what is so secret there? If there was something, everyone knows about it by now. We heard phrases about maintaining the regime of nonproliferation of rocket technology, but that is for the most part just an excuse.
The two countries recently signed a "road map" laying out the plans for the city and cosmodrome for the period 2014-2016, and it includes some extension of Kazakhstan's sovereignty into Baikonur:
These changes [in the road map related to the city of Baikonur] mainly have to do with citizens of Kazakhstan. More units of government organs will appear in the city, which will perform government services by Kazakhstani law....
At Baikonur the possibility of educating children in schools by Kazakhstan standards and the issuing of documents in the Kazakhstani format is finally emerging. Now, even in Kazakh schools in the city of Baikonur education is by the Russian program, with Russian textbooks translated into Kazakh. It was to the point that Kazakhstani children were learning that their homeland was Russia, and their capital, Moscow.
Now Kazakhstan also will take part in the development of the infrastructure of Baikonur, including helping the city with kindergartens and other social services. Polyclinics, schools, maternity hospitals are already built. We agreed on the need for the development of business activity in the city of Baikonur, and that Kazakhstan cell phone companies will now be able to work in Baikonur.
But he also took pains to emphasize that Kazakhstan did not want Russia to leave Baikonur: “Neither I nor any sane person in Kazakhstan wants Russia to leave Baikonur. We are partners and allies and at this level of international cooperation it’s normal to have joint strategic projects,” he said. He also said that Kazakhstan wasn't interested in reopening the question of how much rent Russia pays Kazakhstan, though he did seem to emphasize how Russia was getting a steal:
This question isn't being discussed. We need to remember that $115 million [the current annual rent] is an almost symbolic sum, it doesn't reflect any objective measure.... Clearly, $115 million 20 years ago [when the figure was agreed] and now -- this is a different amount of money. But the question of the cost of rent for us wasn't the main one.
The new agreement will also give Kazakhstan more control over the rocket launch facilities, and will require Russia to take more measures to mitigate the environmental impact of its Proton rockets, an issue that has been the source of controversy in Kazakhstan. "We are planning to become a space power," Musabayev said.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.