ALMATY -- The first Kazakh cosmonaut has said ahead of the 20th anniversary of his space flight that it was an event "appreciated by the Kazakh people," RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports.
Tokhtar Aubakirov, one of Kazakhstan's most-popular figures, was on a 1991 space mission with Russian Aleksandr Volkov and Austrian scientist Franz Viehboeck. They blasted off from the Baikonur space complex in central Kazakhstan on October 2, 1991 and spent eight days in space.
Aubakirov, 65, subsequently served as deputy chairman of Kazakhstan's State Defense Committee, presidential adviser on national defense, general director of the Kazakh National Space Agency, and a parliament deputy.
But in October 2009, Aubakirov joined the opposition Social Democratic Azat (Free) Party and became a critic of Kazakh officials.
Aubakirov told RFE/RL that the Azat party is sometimes very passive due to the pressure exerted on its members by authorities every time the opposition party launches a new initiative.
He added that he could have gone on more space flights but Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev asked him not to do that or even to pilot a plane.
But Aubakirov said he could still accomplish a lot if given the chance -- he noted he is younger than Nazarbaev, who is 70.
Aubakirov said he thinks Baikonur, which is currently leased by Astana to the Russian Space Agency, should be used jointly by Russia and Kazakhstan. He said more Kazakh cosmonauts should be sent into space from Baikonur but Kazakh officials do not do enough to get them into international space missions.
Aubakirov told RFE/RL he plans to mark the 20th anniversary of his flight on October 2 with his friends and relatives as he does every year.
"I still remember that day [very well]," he said. "I remember how Kazakhs greeted me everywhere -- in Almaty, Qyzyl Orda, Aral, and other places -- they were carrying me on their shoulders and cars were following us."
Asked about an open letter from Kazakh intellectuals to Nazarbaev asking him to designate October 2 as Cosmonauts Day, Aubakirov said he won't comment because he does not like to talk about himself as a hero.
"I saw the letter and I saw the names of those who signed it," he said. "It is up to the people [and politicians] to decide."
Aubakirov said one big change from the Soviet era is that Kazakh cosmonauts now have to obtain Russian citizenship in order to qualify for Russian space missions.
He said Mukhtar Aimakhanov -- another Kazakh cosmonaut -- is currently awaiting a decision regarding his application for Russian citizenship. Aubakirov said he recently asked Valentina Tereshkova, the first Soviet woman cosmonaut, to intercede on Aimakhanov's behalf.
compiled from agency reports