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Kazakhstan: No Waste in Nuclear Dialogue
Advocacy Campaign Launches Democracy

Eurasia Foundation Case Study

Bringing nuclear waste to Kazakhstan is roughly equivalent to importing steel to Pittsburgh in the U.S., carrying coal to Newcastle in England, or introducing samovars to Tula in Russia. The largest central Asian republic and its 15 million inhabitants already suffer from the aftermath of Soviet era nuclear tests, uranium mining, and radiation. Experts estimate that between seven and ten percent of the population was affected by the 489 atmospheric and underground explosions at the Semipalatinsk site in eastern Kazakhstan, where a total energy equivalent to 2,500 Hiroshima bombs was released over the last half century. Uranium mining continues today, and there are more than a dozen abandoned mines as well as 200 thousand tons of radioactive waste and contaminated equipment scattered throughout the country's vast steppes.

"If there was a social contract in this country of huge natural resources," says Martha Brill Olcott, Central Asia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, it was "about trying to heal the deep radiation scars that have been the unwanted heritage from Soviet time for the new republic."

With little tradition of civic discourse, internal dialogue on social issues has not been a strength of the new republic. So it came as no surprise to learn that behind closed doors, Mukhtar Dzhakishev, president of the government-owned nuclear company Kazatomprom, had suggested importing nuclear waste from developed countries. Dzhakishev dreamed of generating revenue in excess of $20 billion over the next 25 years. A substantial portion of the proceeds was to go toward decontaminating the perennial radiation generated by mountains of waste.

From a purely economic perspective, the proposal seemed to make sense: with so much nuclear waste already in Kazakhstan, what difference would a little more make? But in a country with a population density that is one-fifth of the U.S. and one-tenth of European levels, little consideration was given to how to receive, deactivate, and store new radioactive material, which was to be delivered by rail from Russia. Nevertheless, in 2000, a bill was outlined in parliament to reverse a ten year-old ban on importing nuclear waste.

Unexpectedly, a civil explosion hit. "Dissent is not something the authorities particularly encourage," says Olcott, "but environmental issues are different. This is, so far, the only field where there is a 99 percent national majority for keeping environmental harm away." The authors of the nuclear import plans did not realize that citizens had found new ways to voice their views over the last few years.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Kazakhstan presently number around 3,500, and have begun to perpetuate a new understanding of the role of civil society. In response to the Dzhakishev plan, the burgeoning NGO community responded with an onslaught of articles and commentaries opposing nuclear waste imports. In 2001, they gathered in Almaty, the nation's economic capital, to discuss how to fight the proposed legislation.

Olcott assessed the conferences, articles, and hearings that emerged, saying, "A national dialogue started, where billions of dollars, the health of the nation, the reputation of the country, and some other heavy issues were at stake." Emotions ran especially high at a hearing in Aktau, in western Kazakhstan. Home to sacred Kazakh sites as well as to a 30-year-old Soviet-type nuclear reactor, it was the designated disposal site for the to-be-imported waste.

One of the promoters of the no-import campaign is the Karaganda Ecological Center (EcoCenter). This eight-person NGO was formed in 1992 in Karaganda, a coal mining town of 600,000, developed on Stalin's orders to make steel for the Soviets. EcoCenter set out to evaluate the various local risks to ecology and biodiversity posed by the Dzhakishev plan and previous heavy legacy. Over the course of several years, the group signed an agreement with the Ministry of Environment and established a women's leadership network in the country. Founder and Director Kaisha Atakhanova learned about ecological issues in Central Europe and looks back on years of work with the Karaganda hospital. "The campaign got support first of all from many Kazakhs, who are not used to contradict government initiatives," says Atakhanova.

Russian experts and Western foundations then offered support to convert the waste-import issue into a national dialogue. EcoCenter received close to $160,000 from the Netherlands, the U.S. Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs, the Eurasia Foundation, the Soros Foundation, and the Counterpart Consortium for advocacy, campaign management training, and NGO resource centers.

The Eurasia Foundation was the main supporter of the advocacy campaign, that included surveying public opinion in eight cities, organized an NGO steering committee, each handling different aspects of the campaign, such as organizing or fundraising, analyzing legal issues, scientific research, educating the public, and outreach to the media.

While the nuclear import bill was making the rounds among the two houses of parliament, the President's office and the committees, NGOs inundated the members of parliament with information and challenged them to make their views public. The vote was slated for January 2003. In the final run-up, NGOs sent out New Year's letters from constituents asking their legislators to take a stand on the import issue. Most legislators responded - and found their views published - a novelty in Kazakh politics.

"The campaign was successful", states Atakhanova. The ministers set the bill aside, and President Nursultan Nazarbayev appeared on television to express his doubts regarding a bill that would revoke the nuclear waste import ban. Despite these grass-roots successes, the issue is "likely to come up again. I don't think the pro-import camp admits defeat", says Atakhanova. In some media outlets, environmental NGOs are being called local agents of Western secret services. With the stakes so high, both sides are bracing for new encounters.

Encouraged by the level of civic participation in the waste-import issue, Western foundations and governments are asking themselves how best to assist continuing dialogue. Atakhanova has traveled to the United States to visit American officials and foundation representatives at the invitation of various U.S. institutions. "I was surprised that the Americans are pretty secretive about their nuclear issues as well." Although critical of some of the Kazakh policies, she was able to meet Kazakh Embassy officials as well. As Ambassador Kanat Saudabayev asserts, "There should be no taboo subjects in Kazakhstan, and we welcome the Eurasia Foundation's and other's facilitation in the dialogue on such an important subject as nuclear waste disposal. Such experience of cooperation can be used in discussing other pressing problems in other walks of our life in the future".

Charles William Maynes, president of the Eurasia Foundation welcomes these multilateral dialogues between Astana, the six years old capital, and Washington. "We wanted to encourage national dialogue and are impressed by how fast the Kazakhs got into it. I hope this will soon be extended to other parts of community life."

The nuclear waste problem will remain in Kazakhstan for millennia to come. In the short term, however, a win-win situation is being shaped. The Kazakhs have forged an open debate on the country's policies, which is laying the groundwork for a strong civil society. The debate over the environment has created a precedent for exchanges of opinion on a variety of other important issues. It could be argued that this national dialogue dates the birth of Kazakh democracy.

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July 7, 2003                                      No. 5