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Looking Back at Kazakhstan's Historic Decision - 2004-01-01

Kazakhstan recently celebrated its twelfth year of independence. One of the most remarkable events in the country's short history was its decision to give up nuclear weapons. Now Kazakhstan is a key partner in efforts to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. V-O-A's Jeff Lilley attended a ceremony in Washington marking Kazakhstan's historic decision.

The former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan stretches from snow-capped mountains bordering China to the flatlands of European Russia. It's the ninth largest country in the world, covering an area about the size of Western Europe. Its fifteen million citizens come from over a hundred different nationalities.

But ten years ago Kazakhstan was known for another reason: it was the world's fourth largest nuclear power. And it might have stayed that way if President Nursultan Nazarbayev hadn't made a courageous decision. Kanat Saudabayev is Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States and a close confidant of President Nazarbayev: "It could have been very different. In the early days of independence, there was no shortage of emissaries asking President Nazarbayev to keep nuclear weapons, saying that you are going to be the first and only Muslim nation with nuclear weapons, and you are going to be respected by the whole world. I must say that a significant portion of Kazakhstan's elite of that time was also in favor of keeping this nuclear arsenal."

But President Nazarbayev knew well the horrors nuclear weapons had brought to his country. As a young man he had lived in an apartment in northern Kazakhstan. Tremors from nearby nuclear tests would rattle the chandelier and make the furniture creak, and his two young daughters would run to him, fearing there had been an earthquake.

Four decades of Soviet nuclear testing exposed more than one million Kazakhs to dangerous doses of radiation, and the zone of environmental contamination now spreads over territory the size of Germany and Italy combined.

That suffering motivated Mr. Nazarbayev to defy Soviet leaders by shutting down the test site in 1991. Nine months later, Kazakhstan agreed to give up its nuclear weapons that were left behind when the Soviet Union collapsed. That was the beginning of a remarkable relationship with the United States, the country at which Kazakhstan's nuclear-tipped missiles were aimed.

Kazakhstan joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1993. Under an innovative program designed by U-S Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, America provided funding and expertise to help Kazakhstan fulfill its obligation as a non-nuclear weapons state. As part of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program for the former Soviet Union, the United States assisted Kazakhstan in eliminating its nuclear weapons arsenal and testing facilities. Instead of abetting the nuclear arms race, Kazakhstan was taking steps to curb it.

"I must say that for Kazakhstan all these systems were unknown notions because in the Soviet Union there was no tradition of adhering to international standards of controls in this area," says Vladimir Shkolnik, Kazakhstan's Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources, speaking through a translator. He who oversaw the destruction of Kazakhstan's weapons of mass destruction. "As we worked together, we realized we were doing the same job that is crucial for both of our countries, and while in the past we tried to develop weapons to keep the peace, we now are striving for the same peace by disarming."

These days, former Senator Sam Nunn is co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a private organization that works to reduce dangers from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. He believes Kazakhstan can be an example to governments that think these weapons provide more security. Instead of spending millions of dollars on building them, he says these countries should use their resources to build better lives for their citizens.

"Iran and other nations could learn from Kazakhstan that a nation can grow, modernize, make progress and gain stature not in spite of renouncing nuclear weapons but because of it," says Mr. Nunn. "Increasing global security also has a critical economic dimension. In making the decision to disarm, President Nazarbayev also chose to use his nation's resources to build an economic base that would benefit all the citizens of Kazakhstan."

Since 2000, Kazakhstan's economy has grown an average of ten percent a year, and the country has received billion of dollars in foreign investment. Last August, the International Monetary Fund closed its office in Kazakhstan, citing the country's considerable economic progress and the fact that it repaid its debt to the fund eight years early.

Minister Shkolnik says Kazakhstan is reaping dividends from its decision to renounce nuclear weapons: "It may be said God expressed his gratitude to Kazakhstan for disarming by now giving us an opportunity to enjoy economic growth."

Sam Nunn believes there's another, perhaps more urgent lesson in Kazakhstan's decision to renounce nuclear weapons. That's the need for countries to work together to prevent nuclear weapons or nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. He calls it a race between cooperation and catastrophe. "Terrorists are racing to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction," he says. "We are not yet racing to stop them. A nuclear 9-11 would make the World Trade Center attack look like a warning shot. We are long past the time where we can take satisfaction from taking steps in the right direction. A gazelle running from a cheetah is taking steps in the right direction. If a terrorist nuclear device exploded in Washington, New York, Astana, Moscow, or London, what would we wish we had done to stop it, and why aren't we doing it now?"

Richard Lugar, chairman of the U-S Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says America's cooperation with Kazakhstan provides a model for combating the threat facing the United States: "We must be prepared to apply strong diplomatic and economic authority and as last resort military force, and yet we should not assume we cannot forge cooperative nonproliferation programs with some critical nations. The experience of the Nunn-Lugar program in Kazakhstan has demonstrated that the threat of weapons of mass destruction can lead to truly extraordinary outcomes based on strong mutual interest."

There has been some progress, such as an agreement in 2002 by the Group of Eight industrialized nations to spend twenty billion dollars over ten years to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction around the world. And next year's U-S budget contains a provision that allows President Bush to use nonproliferation funds for the former Soviet Union to address emergencies anywhere in the world.

But Sam Nunn thinks the United States can do a better job of leading the world in the right direction. He says lawmakers' recent decision, backed by President George Bush, to allocate about $7 million toward studies on bunker-busting nuclear weapons sends the wrong signal to the world. The Pentagon wants to explore the feasibility of using such weapons to destroy hardened targets where countries might store weapons of mass destruction. But there are fears such research could lead to a new generation of battlefield nuclear weapons. "I think it's very damaging to America's security position because I think it sets back our effort and our moral persuasion effectiveness in trying to move the world away from nuclear weapons," he says.

President Nazarbayev says Kazakhstan has earned the moral right to call on other nations to follow its example in renouncing nuclear weapons.