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Central Asia: Dangerous Encirclement Prompts Call For Nuclear Free Zone

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 10 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Representatives of the Central Asian states and the five nuclear countries -- the U. S., China, Russia, Britain and France -- as well as those of the United Nations are meeting today in Kyrgyzstan capital Bishkek for a two-day conference on ways to create a nuclear free zone in Central Asia.

The states of Central Asia are facing a disturbing geo-strategic situation since India and Pakistan shocked the world with their recent nuclear test explosions. The five Central Asian states find themselves increasingly encircled by nuclear powers or threshold nuclear powers: Russia to the north, China to the east, India and Pakistan to the south, and Israel to the west. Iran, another immediate neighbor, is widely believed to be seeking nuclear capability, although experts differ on how long it will take for it to acquire that expertise.

The irony is that the Central Asian states themselves are collectively opposed to nuclear weapons, having suffered much in the Soviet era as a site for testing atomic bombs, for nuclear waste storage, and as a production center for fissile materials.

Only last month (June) a summit of Turkic countries, which included Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as well as Azerbaijan from the Caucasus area, signed a special declaration at which they appealed to India and Pakistan not to proceed further down the nuclear path. And this month (July) Kazakh and Chinese leaders signed a declaration which also expressed concern at the increasing nuclear threat as a result of the Indo-Pakistan developments.

The people of Central Asia know the cost of exposure to nuclear radiation. Kazakhstan has recorded significant health problems stemming from the hundreds of above-ground and underground Soviet tests at Semipalatinsk. Kyrgyzstan is host to some 30 nuclear waste dumps from the Soviet era, including a big repository at Mailisai, which is close to a river and which, according to experts, is in a dangerous condition. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are all close enough to China to have been affected by radiation drift from blasts at the Lop Nor test range. Most of the Central Asian states, predominantly Kazakhstan, have also faced the health risks associated with uranium mining or processing.

But what can the Central Asian states do? Although their region is of key economic importance because of its vast oil wealth, they are militarily weak, and their regional political links with one another are not yet strongly developed. The London-based international organization called the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament says one positive move would be for the Central Asian states to press ahead and formally declare themselves a nuclear free zone.

The Campaign, which works for an end to nuclear arms worldwide, says such a gesture would be largely symbolic but would still have an important impact. The Campaign's political officer William Peden says:

"They would send a very clear message to the countries that possesses nuclear weapons, that this group of countries does not want nuclear weapons and have no use for nuclear weapons. The more countries that do that the better. They are sending a message to the rest of them, namely they are saying, 'why have you got nuclear weapons?. They have no role in our security structure. You live next door to us, and so why have you got them'. This adds to pressure on the nuclear states."

Peden says the formal naming of Central Asia as the world's next nuclear-free zone is what he describes as a logical step. He sees the region as an essential buffer area separating nuclear zones. He notes that Pakistan and India have already fought three wars in the last half century. In any future nuclear conflict between those two states, Central Asia would be on the front line and could expect heavy exposure to radiation.

Another nuclear arms expert, Paul Beaver of Jane's military information publishing group, agrees with that assessment

"If India and Pakistan went to war we would all suffer from fallout, none of us would be immune, that is a real concern in the area. It would make Chernobyl look like a sneeze".