Why Kazakhstan is playing a key role at nuclear summit

SEMEY, Kazakhstan — Praskoviya Koloskova would be amazed to learn that she is one of the reasons why Kazakhstan, a country in Central Asia most Americans know little about, is playing a key role in this week’s global nuclear security summit.
 
The 85-year-old widow, who lives in a retirement home in this forlorn city on the vast windswept steppes of northeast Kazakhstan, was among some 1.5 million people who were exposed to dangerous radiation levels when Semey, formerly known as Semipalatinsk, was the closest city to the Soviet Union’s main testing site for nuclear weapons, from 1949 to 1989. A total of 456 nuclear devices — 113 of them above ground or atmospheric — were detonated at the Polygon, Russian for “firing range,” about 90 miles from here.
 

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She recalled last week what it was like to live under the nuclear cloud, which Soviet officials said was not dangerous, and to witness explosions like the one that occurred 57 years ago, on the morning of Aug. 12, 1953, when the Soviets detonated their first thermonuclear bomb.
 
“Usually, before a test, they recommended that we open our windows and doors and wait outside of our house,” she said, referring to the warnings the local citizenry received when Soviet scientists began testing atomic bombs four years earlier in a frantic effort to catch up with the United States.
 
“But this was different,” she said through an interpreter. “I felt the [pressure] wave and then it was like a cup with smoke and tongues of fire, and after that, the fire was going up and I saw the mushroom and then breathed the air, which was full of ash. It seemed like it was only a hundred meters away.”
 
Mrs. Koloskova’s husband, a carpenter, was at work and their three sons, who were in school, also witnessed the blast. A relatively small explosion — 400 kilotons — it paved the way for the first true Soviet hydrogen super-bomb, a 1.6 megaton monster, two years later.
 
The radioactive fallout from all the above-ground and atmospheric tests left Mrs. Koloskova with health problems and occasional nightmares. “I don’t know what happened with me, but from that moment, I felt headaches and nervous disorders,” she said.
 
But she was one of the lucky ones. Still vigorous and able to walk with the aid of a cane, she was not afflicted with any of the horrific tumors or radiation-born genetic mutilations and birth defects that affected many residents of Semey and other settlements in the middle of the 7,000-square-mile testing area.
 
Her story, and those of thousands of others like her, is the reason why Kazakhstan is among the most prominent of the 47 nations represented at the two-day global nuclear security summit that began Monday in Washington.
 
Indeed, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev was the second foreign leader, after Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, with whom President Barack Obama met on Sunday. Obama praised Nazarbayev, the former head of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan who was elected president when Kazakhstan became the last of the former Soviet republics to declare independence in 1991, as “one of the model leaders in the world.
 
He added, “We could not have this summit without his presence.”
 
And just last week, United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki Moon visited the Polygon testing site, known as “ground zero,” and praised Nazarbayev for his efforts to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. A week earlier, Nazarbayev met in Astana, the nation’s new capital, with Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, to discuss military cooperation with the U.S., including efforts on stabilizing Afghanistan.
 
Obama’s words of praise reflect the fact that even though Kazakhstan is hardly a shining example of democracy — its parliament made Nazarbayev de facto president for life in 2007 with veto powers over any legislation and immunity from criminal prosecution — he was the first foreign leader to renounce the possession and use of nuclear weapons.
 
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On Aug. 29, 1991, four months before the Soviet Union collapsed and 38 years after Mrs. Koloskova witnessed the Soviets’ first thermonuclear explosion, Nazarbayev shut down the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site. And in 1995, after his country inherited the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal, he declared that Kazakhstan was a nuclear-free country and returned 40 heavy bombers and more than 1,400 nuclear warheads for intercontinental and intermediate-range missiles to Russia for destruction. He later ordered the destruction of 148 ICBM silos across Kazakhstan and underground test tunnels at Semipalatinsk, under the Nunn-Lugar Program.
 
At the same time, he approved a secret joint operation with the U.S., code-named Project Sapphire, to remove 1,322 pounds of highly enriched uranium, enough to make 24 nuclear bombs, to the U.S. in 1994.

 
Obama’s warm words for Nazarbayev also reflect the geopolitical realities of the 21st century. Kazakhstan, a country larger than all of Western Europe and four times the size of Texas, is sandwiched between Russia and China, and borders on Kyrgyzstan, where recent uprisings threaten the status of a major U.S. air base supporting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
 
In fact, when Nazarbayev met with Obama on Sunday, he agreed to allow overflights by U.S. planes carrying troops and equipment to Afghanistan, an important concession in light of the uncertain situation in Kyrgyzstan.
 
Kazakhstan also has the Caspian Sea region’s largest recoverable oil and gas reserves, as well as the world’s second-largest deposits of uranium.
 
Kazakhstan is flexing its diplomatic muscles; in January it became the first predominantly Muslim nation and the first former Soviet Union state to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Kazakhstan appears determined to strengthen its ties to the U.S. and ready to awaken from its role as the sleeping giant of Central Asia.