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Kazakhstan: Russias Failed Rocket Launch Angers

  • Bruce Pannier



The explosion of a Russian Proton rocket after its launch in Kazakhstan early this week has led to angry words from Kazakh officials over the dangers the incident poses to public health. They are also expressing anger at the fact that Moscow has not made promised payments for use of the Baikonur Cosmodrome. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier looks at the incident and at some of its possible consequences for Kazakhstan's environment and for the Russian and international space programs.

Prague, 12 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Last Monday evening, a Proton rocket carrying a Raduga satellite lifted off from the Baikonur space center in central Kazakhstan. At first, Russia's space center reported that the satellite had achieved a preliminary orbit. But after ten minutes all contact was lost. The rocket had exploded and the satellite never entered space.

Debris from the rocket rained down on Kazakhstan's Karaganda region. One 200 kilogram chunk landed in the yard of a private house in the village of Karbushevka. One far bigger -- estimated at some 80-tons, fell just 10 kilometers from the Kazakh village of Salamalkol. This debris was not as alarming as the thought that the toxic fuel the Proton rocket uses had also been dispersed over a wide area in the same region.

Kazakh authorities the next day announced a ban on Russian launches from Baikonur. Kazakhstan's Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Pavlov, on his way to view the damage caused by the crash, today expressed frustration with Russian officials over the incident. His comments focused on more than the crash. In comments to reporters, he also voiced Kazakh complaints that Moscow isn't paying its bills.

"Unfortunately, as of today the Russian side has failed to meet those obligations which could be defined as the key points of the agreements and treaties and other documents signed regarding the lease of the Baikonur complex. As you know, we have not received a single cent, a single kopek, or a single tiyin, as of today for the renting of Baikonur. Russia keeps breaking procedure, redefining terms and dates, without taking into account the Kazakh standpoint. There are a wide range of other matters which are necessary to resolve and which will be resolved, I think, through amendments and additions to the corresponding documents."

Baikonur was built during Soviet times and has been the main staging area for rocket launches since the late 1960s. The space center became Kazakhstan's property after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. However, Russia still wanted use of the facility and in 1994, reached an agreement with the Kazakh government to rent Baikonur for $115 million annually. The two countries also agreed that Russia could use four former military testing ranges on Kazakh territory. But Russia never paid any of the rent.

The two countries' presidents later agreed to wave Russia's debt of more than $500 million from earlier years. But Moscow was to begin making the annual payment of $115 million. The bill now stands at over $300 million which, again, has not been paid.

Anger in Kazakhstan over last Monday's incident is no doubt strengthened by a nasty legacy from the Soviet era. Nuclear tests conducted on Kazakh territory over more than 20 years into the 1980s continue to affect the health of people in Kazakhstan's Semipalatinsk region. The rapid depletion of water in the Aral Sea, caused by overuse of water for farming purposes, also causes health and ecological problems in southwestern Kazakhstan. In 1986, the explosion of another Russian rocket showered toxic debris over a wide region and was blamed for the deaths of one million antelope. There has also been resentment from people living in the area around Baikonur that Russian citizens working at Baikonur have special privileges.

The Kazakh government is not alone in venting anger over the latest incident. July 8 in Kazakhstan's former capital Almaty, people gathered outside the Russian Embassy and demanded Russia stop all launches from Baikonur.

Public anger will likely get worse if Kazakh authorities decide it is necessary to evacuate people from the areas affected by fuel spilled after the explosion. Anger will also likely grow if it is determined that the water and soil is poisoned, rendering some places unfit for habitation.

Russia needs the Baikonur facility in the immediate future, a fact certainly not lost on Kazakh officials. The launch of a Russian-Ukrainian satellite, set for yesterday, has already been postponed, making it the first victim of the launch ban.

On July 14 a cargo ship is scheduled to lift off from Baikonur to bring supplies to the crew aboard Russia's Mir space station. Among the supplies is a navigational system to keep the station in orbit when the crew presently aboard departs the station in August. Russia is still trying to raise funds to send a replacement crew, but the possibility exists that the station will be unmanned after the present crew's return to Earth.

Should the ban last long enough, it could also interfere with Russia's commitment to the Alpha international space station. A launch of the next Russian component for that station is scheduled from Baikonur in November.

Russia has already requested that rockets which do not use toxic fuels be allowed to lift off from Baikonur, but Kazakh government officials have so far rejected the request.

Kazakhstan seldom has cards it can play to put pressure on Russia. Russia is Kazakhstan's biggest trading partner. Russia borders all of northern Kazakhstan and to a large degree supplies that area with energy supplies. Russia is also the first country of transit for Kazakh goods bound for Europe.

But in the current circumstances, Kazakhstan appears to be in a position to win concessions from Russia. It also appears prepared to use the leverage it has.

(Merhat Sharipzhan of the Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)

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