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Kazakhstan/Russia: Talks Start To Lift Rocket Ban

Contentious talks between Russia and Kazakhstan start today on Russian use of Kazakhstan's Baikonur cosmodrome. The Russians are hoping to overturn a ban imposed by Kazakhstan after two rockets exploded in the past four months. RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier reports that at issue is a large amount of money and the state of Russia's satellite communications network.

Prague, 18 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov leads a high-level delegation to Kazakhstan today to discuss terms for lifting a ban on rocket launches from the Baikonur cosmodrome.

The talks follow the explosion in October of a Russian Proton booster rocket over Kazakh territory. It was the second Proton to go down over Kazakhstan in four months, following a crash in July.

At the center of the talks is the amount of financial compensation Russia will have to pay to lift the ban.

The Kazakhs say this won't come cheap. They say the explosions endangered the lives of citizens living along the path of the launch. They say the damage came both from falling debris and from the release of highly toxic rocket fuel into the water and soil.

Also at issue is the current state of Russia's satellite telecommunications network. With a ban on launches until next spring in place, Russia would not soon be able to replace the oldest satellites of its rapidly aging network.

Mike Taverna of the American publication "Aviation Week and Space Technology" explains that the October launch involved a critically needed communications satellite. He spoke with RFE/RL by telephone:

"The payload that was lost on October 27 was called Express A-1. It was the first of three new telecommunications satellites that were supposed to replace the oldest Russian satellites, the ones that have to be replaced the soonest. There is no indication yet that they will be replaced. The next launch is scheduled for the beginning of next year and a third one for the end of the year. There is some concern that any significant delay beyond the first of the year might [push all of the launches back]. This is considered a serious problem."

The Baikonur cosmodrome, located deep within Kazakh territory, dates from the Soviet era and remains Russia's most important launch site. The cosmodrome is the only site from which Proton rockets, used to lift the most important payloads, can be launched.

According to a 1995 agreement, Russia rents use of the cosmodrome for $115 million a year.

Kazakh officials have been outspoken in expressing concern about the two accidents. Pieces of the July explosion landed in people's yards in the Karaganda region, although no one was reported injured.

The Proton is powered by hepthyl, a highly toxic propellant used by both Russian and American rockets. Just a trace hepthyl is enough to contaminate soil and water.

Craig Covault, a senior editor with "Aviation Week and Space Technology," tells RFE/RL the toxicity of the fuel is one reason the U.S. space agency NASA only launches its rockets when the wind is blowing away from populated areas. The main U.S. launch site, Cape Canaveral, is located in a populated area in the southern state of Florida.

Covault says the dangers posed by hepthyl are real, but most of the damage would be confined to the immediate crash site:

"The Russian rocket propellant carried in the Proton rockets that failed above Kazakhstan is certainly hazardous. It can kill you if you come in contact with it. However, at the altitude at which the rocket failed, the great majority of that propellant would evaporate very quickly. The only real hazard from it would be the highly localized area on the ground around where debris landed or within the debris pile itself."

Following the first crash, Russia agreed to pay compensation of about $270 million in damages and another $140 million toward medical expenses for people in the affected area.

The second crash was judged to be much less serious. Klebanov has said Russia would pay no more than $27,000.

The Kazakh space agency says compensation for the second accident must be the same as for the first.

In addition to compensation, the head of the Kazakh delegation at today's talks, First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Pavlov, says he plans to raise in negotiations the question of Russian arrears in rent payments for Baikonur.

Last year, officials agreed to offset Russian arrears of about $600 million against existing Kazakh debts, but said Russia must begin making direct payments from that point on. Pavlov told the Kazakh parliament last week, however, that Russia had paid only $12.5 million in August and September, and $4.7 million in October.

Pavlov said he also plans to raise the question of Kazakh financial participation in highly lucrative commercial launches. The Russian newspaper "Izvestiya" reported Russia stood to receive $70 million for each of its next three launches.

The ban on launches extends into February of next year. It is possible Kazakhstan will agree to launches of other types of rockets while still prohibiting launches of Protons. But that would still leave Russia's space program facing serious problems, "Izvestiya" reports that Russia has seven Proton rockets made between 1995-1998 and ready to launch, and all are practically exact copies of those involved in the accidents.

(Merhat Sharipzhan from the Kazakh service contributed to this report.)