Kazakhstan and Global Nuclear Security
Remarks at the the U.S. Capitol Hill Event “Nuclear Weapons Testing: History, Progress, and Challenges Ahead”
Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Closure of the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site
Capitol Visitors Center
September 13, 2016
Great powers bear the main responsibility for lessening nuclear risks, as in the Iran nuclear deal. In lower profile ways, small and medium-sized states also play vital roles. Kazakhstan is a prime example. I will describe some of its contributions to nuclear security, and then discuss how its nonnuclear strategy has helped Kazakhstan become an emerging international leader.
It is mainly through cooperation and “soft power” that small and medium-sized states bolster global nuclear security. For example, they play key roles in cooperating to secure and eliminate sensitive materials and technologies, and to detect and apprehend those who smuggle them.
Few such countries have done as much as Kazakhstan. In 1991 while still part of the USSR, it defied Moscow to force closure of the main Soviet nuclear explosive test site at Semipalatinsk (now Semey). Over 450 tests had contaminated 18 million square kilometers of land, and created health risks for one-and-one-half million people.
In the late Soviet period during Gorbachev’s glasnost, or openness, era, the Nevada-Semipalatinsk public movement emerged in Kazakhstan. With support from local authorities, it raised consciousness about the health and environmental risks of nuclear testing.
After gaining independence in December 1991, Kazakhstan faced the challenge of what to do with the test site and the over 1,000 nuclear weapons sitting atop giant SS-18 missiles in silos. Under the leadership of President Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan early on opted to go nonnuclear. It joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state. There was broad consensus for this policy, conditioned in part on popular dismay with testing at Semipalatinsk.
A far-sighted initiative launched by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar in 1991 helped Kazakhstan achieve its nonnuclear goals. The two Senators gained Congressional support for a new program to assist former Soviet countries to dismantle and destroy legacy infrastructure associated with weapons of mass destruction. Taking advantage of this, Kazakhstan blew up missile silos and cleaned up the test site. The latter process took two decades.
In 1995 Kazakhstan became the first former Soviet state to eliminate leftover Soviet strategic arms by shipping them to Russia, which Moscow and Washington encouraged. Belarus and Ukraine later did the same.
Kazakhstan did not stop there. It sent over 500 kilograms of former Soviet weapons-grade uranium to America for safekeeping. Kazakhstan dismantled and destroyed the world’s largest anthrax weapon factory. It cleaned up an open air biological weapons test site on an Aral Sea island jointly owned with Uzbekistan. Andrew Weber was instrumental in these historic achievements.
Last year in partnership with the International Atomic Energy Agency, Kazakhstan became host to the world’s first fuel bank for low enriched uranium. Its purpose is to safeguard sensitive nuclear material and be a reliable source of low-enriched fuel for any state unable to obtain it from elsewhere. This reflects a shared vision of America, the European Union, Norway, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. They jointly fund the fuel bank.
President Nazarbayev has leveraged his personal ties with other world leaders to advance the cause of nuclear peace. In 2013 Kazakhstan hosted two rounds of talks between the P5+1 nations and Iran. It then facilitated the removal of highly enriched uranium from Iran by providing it with non-enriched uranium.
These experiences show how Kazakhstan has filled important gaps in the architecture for global nuclear security.
Perhaps no other country accords nonproliferation the central role in foreign policy that it has for Kazakhstan. Over the past 25 years its emphasis on nonproliferation has brought substantial benefit.
First, Kazakhstan’s nonnuclear posture has helped it forge close ties with the West. In turn the West gave early and strong support to investment that has helped Kazakhstan unlock greater value from its abundant energy resources. As a result, Kazakhstan is now one of the world’s larger oil exporters.
Second, wide support in Kazakhstan for nonproliferation stance has reinforced investor perceptions that the country is stable and pragmatic. This has helped it attract substantial investment, including the first huge foreign investment project anywhere in the former Soviet Union.
Third, the prominent place of nonproliferation in foreign policy has helped Kazakhstan gain respect and stature to be a leader on the international stage. In 1992 it led in the creation of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. With 26 member states, CICA enhances communication among countries ranging from South Korea to Egypt.
In 2010, Kazakhstan became the first former Soviet state and first predominantly Muslim country to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Kazakhstan hosted its first summit in over a decade. Kazakhstan’s chairmanship spurred the OSCE to shift more of its focus eastward, an overdue step. The OSCE has become more sensitive to the special security concerns of Central Asian states adjacent to Afghanistan.
Kazakhstan is the only Central Asian state to have chaired the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, in 2011-2012. It helped the OIC raise over $500 million to aid Somalia.
In 2009, Kazakhstan and four neighbors created the Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. In 2012, Kazakhstan launched The ATOM Project, which aims to galvanize global public opinion against nuclear testing. In 2015, Kazakhstan and Japan assumed co-chairmanship of the Conference of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Together, its nonnuclear policy and international leadership efforts helped Kazakhstan win a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council beginning next year.
It is hard to imagine that any middle power a quarter-century into its independence could rise to play such an important role so soon. Kazakhstan’s early commitment to nonnuclear status and its sustained efforts to advancing the cause of nonproliferation have helped catapult the country to international respect and admiration.
Many challenges lie ahead for Kazakhstan. Chief among them are the need further to open its economic and political systems, and to manage and balance its relationships with great powers near and far. In 2009, Kazakhstan and four neighbors created the Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. In 2012, Kazakhstan launched The ATOM Project, a campaign that aims to galvanize global public opinion against nuclear weapon testing and, ultimately, nuclear weapons. In 2015, Kazakhstan and Japan assumed co-chairmanship of the Conference of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, where they promote its entry into force, including through conferences convened by the UN Secretary General.
The achievements to date are building a solid foundation for Kazakhstan to realize its considerable potential.
William Courtney, a former U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia, is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonpartisan, nonprofit RAND Corporation, and President of the U.S.-Kazakhstan Business Association.