Kazakhstan’s quest for global nuclear importance

The former Soviet states in Central Asia are often derided as backwaters. But Kazakhstan, the largest, is also taking a leading role in global nuclear security. The same country where Moscow once exploded hundreds of nuclear weapons has spent the last half-decade aggressively expanding its uranium mining industry… and just this week, negotiations over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.

Since its independence on December 16, 1991, Kazakhstan has prided itself on its responsible stewardship of its nuclear legacy. Throughout the 90s the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program (essentially millions of dollars in return for allowing US inspectors to dismantle decaying nuclear weapons and stockpiles) brought Kazakhstan to the forefront of arms control. In many ways, it was a model for how nuclear states can choose to denuclearize themselves.

The government of Kazakhstan plays into this as well. In 2011, at a twentieth anniversary celebration of Kazakhstan’s independence in Washington DC I attended, Kazakh officials told a room of connected, powerful American elites about their responsible stewardship of their nuclear legacy — how, despite the unimaginable suffering wrought by Soviet nuclear testing in Semipalatinsk they have been responsible, even forward-looking about nuclear security issues.

Uranium mine in Kyzyl Kum, Kazakhstan

Uranium mine in Kyzyl Kum, Kazakhstan

The other side to this highly-paid stewardship is Kazakhstan’s own vast uranium reserves, which the government has been aggressively developing for years. As far back as 2007, Kazakhstan has even promoted itself as a global clearinghouse for uranium to power nuclear power stations — an idea that languished until Russia brought the IAEA on board with the idea.

Along the way the Kazakh government inked uranium supply deals with India,China, and Japan. Not even the U.S. has been immune to Kazakhstan’s uranium market expansion: in 2007, KazAtomProm, a state-owned company, bought outToshiba’s share in nuclear power plant builder Westinghouse. U.S. politicians are in on the Kazakh uranium game as well.

If all this sounds odd, it’s only because Kazakhstan is more normally known — if people know of it at all — as an oil state. And in many ways it is: despite the growth of Kazakhstan’s uranium sector, oil companies are still planning to investmore than $154 billion in petroleum development over the next decade.

But Kazakhstan’s quest for it’s “World Bank for Uranium” always had a political element, part of a national narrative suggesting an inevitable future of progress and growth.

This week, Kazakhstan’s role in global nuclear security rose a notch or two as ithosted a round of talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Almaty. The cautious optimism some officials expressed about the talks is almost immaterial: they’re as likely to go nowhere as all the other talks about Iran’s brinksmanship.

What I find more interesting is that the talks took place in Kazakhstan, of all places. Put simply, the reason they took place there is because Kazakhstan is trying to turn its rapid economic growth (however uneven) into global political importance. They tried it by chairing the OSCE in 2010. It didn’t reflect well on them, as shortly afterward OSCE monitors criticized Kazakhstan’s elections as unfair and non-democratic.

The Iran talks are, however, a sign that Kazakhstan is still pushing as hard as it can for a place at the table of nuclear security and energy issues. Maybe this is their form of diversifying away from oil (a curious choice, to say the least). But for the time being at least, there’s no sign yet that the EU, U.S., or even UN sees anything odd about it.

That’s odd. Kazakhstan’s claims to economic prosperity were thrown into sharp relief at the end of 2011, when a months-long strike by oil workers ended when government forces massacred at least 15. It wasn’t the harbinger of a major protest movement but it did show just how hollow Kazakhstan’s “progress” really is. In addition, Kazakhstan has a hard road to travel if it wants to be a real player in nuclear security any time soon: it is too sparse, too remote, and too staid to really displace the traditional powers without herculean effort.

This week Kazakhstan was something rather banal: window dressing. The Almaty talks gave the veneer of neutrality to the setting while the host country is dominated by western economic interests. That might be an effective ploy for getting Iran to consider a bargain for a few minutes, but it’s not likely to change the equation much for Iran.

Iran, however, is only the most visible crisis in the nuclear security world. Pakistan and North Korea are the next big worries there, along with continuing concerns about fissile material security, smuggling rings, and regional unrest putting stockpiles at risk. The rapid rise of Kazakhstan to be a global player in the uranium game is a remarkable artifact of these continuing concerns, and it’s certain to be involved in future proceedings.

What that will really change is anyone’s guess. Kazakhstan’s economy may be dominated by Western companies but its politics are resolutely neutral. Kazakhstan’s decision to join the Russia-led Eurasian Union is one way they will try to balance out Western influence with Russia. And in 2009 Kazakhstan completed a major oil pipeline into China — yet more balancing against the West.

This leaves us with a very big question: in future disputes, will Kazakhstan side with the West, or with the Rest? The answer, impossible to know for now, will determine whether Kazakhstan is a constructive or disruptive force in Eurasian energy, security, and politics.

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