Crossroads Asia

Discussing Dictators and Nuclear Fallout in Central Asia

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Crossroads Asia

Discussing Dictators and Nuclear Fallout in Central Asia

A detailed look at the Afghan border, a discussion of dictators, and a secret report on Semipalatinsk; recommended reads.

Discussing Dictators and Nuclear Fallout in Central Asia
Credit: Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization / Flickr

Central Asia weekend reads:

Is Kazakhstan’s President a Dictator? You Decide: As Nazarbayev tells it, he’s nothing short of Kazakhstan’s Lee Kwan Yew and his consolidation of power in the presidency is necessary for rapid economic progress. In her recent Global Voices piece, Dina Baidildayeva outlines Nazarbayev’s favorite pet theme: explaining “why, in his opinion, Asian societies aren’t always suited to the trials and tribulations of democracy.”

Recently Nazarbayev argued that the 1995 constitution, which gave him great powers, was necessary “in order to ensure faster economic development of the country, by adopting faster reforms without consulting the public and the Parliament, which was slowing down economic development.” Elbasy knows best. “But that doesn’t make me a dictator.”

Nazarbayev likes to hold Astana up as an example of Kazakhstan’s progress, the glittering city he dreams of as a steppe version of Dubai. “But there is a problem with Nazarbayev’s depiction of Kazakhstan,” Baidildayeva notes. “[I]t is a facade.”

Central Asia’s Anxious Watch On The Afghan Border: Bruce Pannier’s detailed review of the recent history of the borderlands between Afghanistan and Central Asia is well worth a read. He looks at the Afghan borders with both Turkmenistan and Tajikistan with special attention to what is going on on the Afghan side of the border. The patchwork of threats — IMU, ISIS, Taliban — and who the different factions therein are siding with can seem confusing:

In late 2015, another group of IMU fighters arrived in Herat Province. This group was reportedly sent by IMU leader Usman Ghazi after he declared the group’s allegiance to the IS [Islamic State] militant group. Their purpose in Herat was to fight alongside a Taliban splinter group that had also declared loyalty to IS, in a battle with a group of “traditional” Taliban fighters.

The traditional Taliban faction eventually crushed their opponents, but some of the pro-IS IMU and Taliban militants escaped into other areas of northwest Afghanistan.

As spring creeps into the region, eyes will be on northern Afghanistan — once the country’s calmer, quieter theater. Recently, I tackled the Turkmenistan piece of the border puzzle, from the Turkmen side.

A Soviet Cover-Up on the Kazakh Steppe: Semipalatinsk — the Soviet nuclear testing site in Kazakhstan — was the site of more than 450 nuclear tests between 1949 and 1989, must of them in the 1950s and early ’60s. In August 1956, the fallout from one test put more than 600 people from the nearby industrial city Ust-Kamenogorsk in the hospital for radiation poisoning; how many died is unknown. For comparison, after the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, there were 134 confirmed cases of radiation sickness. Soviet authorities hushed up the impact of the 1956 incident at Semipalatinsk and atmospheric bomb tests continued until 1963.

In a piece for New Scientist, Fred Pearce recounts information revealed in a hitherto secret report which catalogues the findings of a scientific expedition from Moscow following the 1956 accident. The report, marked “top secret,” was found the Institute of Radiation Medicine and Ecology (IRME) in Semey, Kazakhstan. IRME was predated by what was called the Anti-Brucellosis Dispensary No. 4, a clinic founded by Moscow specifically to track radiation effects — the name was given to conceal the dispensary’s purpose. The secret report seems to have survived accidentally. IRME’s chief scientist, Boris Gusev, who began working at the dispensary in 1962 said that when the unit was turned over as the Soviet Union ended, archives and records were taken back to Moscow or destroyed.

For a more contemporary look at Semipalatinsk and the people living nearby, read Joanna Lillis’ dispatch from last year.