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Political Activists in Kazakhstan Vulnerable After Nuclear Waste Victory

(Washington, DC--April 28, 2003) Kazakhstan's fledgling grassroots opposition movement, which succeeded earlier this year in blocking a government plan to import nuclear waste into the country, now faces a host of challenges and is calling for continued guidance from the West to help protect civil rights and promote democracy. Activist Kaisha Atakhanova told a recent RFE/RL briefing audience that "we are more aware of what is happening in our country, but have little experience protecting our rights."

Atakhanova, the founder and director of the Kazakh environmental group EcoCenter, described how an informal coalition of local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community groups used public hearings and petitions to pressure the Kazakh government to give up its plans to import and store nuclear waste from countries such as Taiwan and South Korea. The stated goal of the project, rejected by Atakhanova, was to generate the money needed to help Kazakhstan deal with its own nuclear waste problem -- 237 million tons of waste, the most dangerous of which was generated at the soon-to-be-closed BN-350 nuclear breeder reactor at Aqtau and the Semipalatinsk nuclear test site.

Atakhanova said that special interest lobbying, media campaigns, and government interference are all being used to try to limit the effectiveness of NGOs. "The main goal of nuclear lobbyists in Kazakhstan is to weaken NGOs and stop citizens from organizing against the government in general," she said. In addition, the government has proposed new laws that would force foreign NGOs to register locally in order to gain legal status. Atakhanova said that the proposed law lacks a clear definition of what an NGO is and opens the door for organizations to be divided into "convenient and inconvenient" NGOs. She added that some Kazakh officials have tried to discredit NGOs by saying those supported with Western funding are tools of foreign special interests. "We are about to face serious challenges [from the government]," she said. "Those who remain non-political will most likely be allowed to function."

Despite the recent grassroots success, Atakhanova said that nuclear tensions remain and that the import of nuclear waste into Kazakhstan was likely postponed rather than cancelled. Atakhanova said that monitoring groups do not have the resources to monitor the decommissioning of the Aqtau reactor. "We are not economically, politically or technically prepared for this," she said.

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