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Soyuz and Progress-M rolled out to launch pad
A Soyuz booster carrying the latest Progress M cargo spacecraft for the International Space Station is transported to the launch pad earlier this month. (credit: RSC Energia)

Earthly threats for a spaceport

Baikonur faces future insecurity without military presence

Early last month, Lenin Square in Baikonur echoed again to the sound of marching military feet celebrating the 61st anniversary of the victorious end of the war against Hitler’s Germany. Russia’s famous space center was built by Soviet military forces fifty years ago, and since then they have operated launch pads, managed the infrastructure, and provided security. However, with the nearing of the end of the military withdrawal from the space center, this most recent parade will probably be the last ever: the soldiers, both technical troops and guards, are marching back to Russia.

Although they are to be replaced by civilian contractors, these military units leave behind a space center much more vulnerable to accidents by inexperienced replacements and to theft by the local population and by officials. More ominously, the declining physical security opens opportunities for malicious, even hostile actions by a native population with large segments growing more resentful of the presence of the Russian rocket center in the middle of their own country.

Although they are to be replaced by civilian contractors, these military units leave behind a space center much more vulnerable to accidents by inexperienced replacements and to theft by the local population and by officials.

The spaceport spans more than 100 kilometers of rolling steppe, and although the open range appears featureless and difficult to hide in, appearances are deceptive: the land is crisscrossed with dry streams and depressions, there are hundreds of abandoned buildings and dozens of underground missile silos often used in the past decade by smugglers and looters, and Kazakh herdsmen drive their horses, camels, sheep and goats all over the scrubland—except for short-term evacuation during actual rocket firings.

Nor is the cultural landscape as featureless and benign as it also may first appear. Two years ago, Russian military security forces placed the cosmodrome on the top of its list of potential terrorism targets in Kazakhstan, and local government authorities have made several arrests of members of the Hizb-al-Tahrir “caliphate party”: fundamentalist Moslems whose influence has been growing in the area. Chechen rebel fighters, hiding out among their ethnic kin in Kazakhstan, have also been captured, but how many remain undetected is unknown.

Walking away from the barricades

From a reviewing stand near the statue of Lenin that still dominates the square of the city of Baikonur, Lt. Gen. Leonid Baranov, the commander of all local military personnel, had observed the parade. Over 500 officers participated, and enlisted battalions staged a march-past. Afterwards, the troops held a contest of marching songs by students from all the civilian schools in the city of 60,000.

Yet, less than half of those students are Russians, and most of the people in the city and the towns around it—ethnic Kazakhs no longer subjects of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union—are marching to different tunes, and in a different direction. Where that may lead, without the enforced military discipline that is now ending, is the latest challenge for the space center that has become critical not only for the Russian space program but also for the International Space Station and, through it, for America’s own future plans for space exploration.

For the Russian military space program, most launch operations are now being transferred to a base inside Russia, since Baikonur wound up in independent Kazakhstan after the USSR collapsed in 1991. New facilities and new boosters are being deployed there, and existing facilities at Baikonur are being handed over to employees of the federal civilian space bureaucracy, the Russian Space Agency. Teams of foreign partners and contractors are also expanding their presence. The Kazakh government has local policemen and some customs officials at the spaceport, but, so far, few other uniformed security forces.

Russia’s largest operational rocket, the Proton, will still operate out of Baikonur, with new teams of operators made up in large part by retired military engineers. All human space launches of Soyuz spacecraft and Progress robot freighters bound for the International Space Station will also continue to fly from Baikonur indefinitely: the military’s Russian base is too far north to get into the proper orbit. Other commercial space shots on converted military missiles may continue as well.

However, in recent months Russian security agencies have expressed concern over another increasing trend at Baikonur: the growing presence of extremist Islamic groups.

Meanwhile, the Kazakh government is kicking off big plans for developing the tourist industry at the spaceport. For celebrations last year in honor of the cosmodrome’s fiftieth anniversary, acres of fresh blue paint were splashed over weatherbeaten walls and rusted hangar doors, and a major expansion of the cosmodrome’s museum was opened. New commercial air and rail links were established with Russian cities. The roads are still rutted and tortuous, but some comfortable hotels have been opened both in the city itself and at various launch areas inside the cosmodrome territory.

However, in recent months Russian security agencies have expressed concern over another increasing trend at Baikonur: the growing presence of extremist Islamic groups. Kazakhstan is experiencing a revival of cultural interest, and a building boom in new mosques, and for some, the newfound religious fervor takes the form of the fundamentalism that elsewhere in the world has fuelled terrorism. Short of such extremism, a growing resentment to Russian overlordship of native people in Baikonur is attracting more and more media attention throughout Kazakhstan.

Extremist threats?

Aside from a few activists handing out literature, the spaceport region has not seen any real activities that are even remotely related to terrorism. In some ways this has been odd, because there remain tens of thousands of ethnic Chechens in the country, remnants of the population deported during World War 2, with still-strong family ties to rebels in the war-torn Caucasus Mountain province (it was in this community that a Chechen fighter named Sampiyev was arrested on May 29). And some local Kazakhs, too, have long lists of grievances against Russia and its rockets.

Writing in the Almaty newspaper Liter in April, journalist Yuriy Li warned that “the interests of the extremist religious organization Hizb al-Tahrir, it seems, are not limited solely to the overthrow of the constitutional order in the countries of Central Asia, in which it intends to build a unified Caliphate. The events of recent years are indicating increasingly clearly its heightened interest in the cosmos.”

Li reported that a local law enforcement office described the activities of Zhubat-Khan Yeleyusiz, who was arrested in Baikonur while distributing literature “of extremist content”. A second Hizb al-Tahrir member, Rabbym Orazbek, was picked up with a carload of additional literature bound for Baikonur. Orazbek was later arrested again at the Tyuratam railway station with yet another load of literature.

Last May 4, Russian and Kazakh security officials met near the border to discuss common security issues, and according to a press report “the meeting drew special attention to measures on detecting and stopping the activities of the Hezb-e Tahrir religious extremist organization.” Visiting Baikonur for the launch of a Progress supply ship to the ISS, Kazakhstan’s chief mufti (chairman of the country’s council of mosques) Absattar Qazhy Derbisali denounced Islamic extremism: “There has never been and never will be a caliphate [Islamic rule] in Kazakhstan,” he stated. “Confidence men who try to impose extremist ideas on young people are wasting their time in this country, a country that has chosen the path of a peaceful, multi-faith state.” He then attended the laying of the cornerstone of a new mosque in Akay, a Kazakh village two kilometers from Baikonur, the latest of more than 1,700 new mosques built since Kazakhstan declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Another Kazakh-language newspaper in the capital recently described the source of widespread nationalistic resentment towards Russian bases: “Only God knows how long the Kazakh steppe would have been bleeding if the Soviet Union had not collapsed,” the anonymous article lamented. “According to reports provided by doctors, it is very difficult to find a healthy person in districts around [rocket bases]. Infant mortality and the sickness rate among young people are high. Secret documents about the consequences of radiation have been destroyed and it is quite possible that the nightmarish deeds that have taken place during the Soviet period will never be revealed.”

“Regrettably,” the article concluded, “the problem of closing these military test ranges once and for all and using them for the welfare of the people has not yet been solved.” While referring specifically to weapons test ranges, the resentment also extends to “civilian” rocket sites.

Widespread public anger at Baikonur’s activity has assumed mythical proportions. Rocket launchings are widely blamed for fierce sandstorms that increasingly bedevil western Kazakhstan as the Aral Sea continues to dry up.

The newspaper Karavan, published in Kazakhstan’s capital city, Almaty, got very specific with complaints about the spaceport in an article published in mid-April. “The rights of Kazakh nationals living and working at the Baikonur cosmodrome are violated,” it wrote. Kazakh businessmen complain of financial extortion by Russian officials and laws forbidding Kazakhs to own property in the city. Ordinary people complained about soaring prices and broken promises regarding pensions and housing. Simple utilities such as municipal water systems have collapsed in many surrounding native townships.

An Almaty television investigation recently pointed out that Kazakhs accused of crimes against Russians are tried under Russian law, not the Kazakh criminal code that is supposed to share legal authority in the city. This legal apartheid used to be a characteristic of Western colonial rule in Asian and African colonies—its survival in Kazakhstan has been controversial.

“It seems that all the complaints and letters to different authorities are useless,” one woman had told Karavan reporters at a secret meeting. “Perhaps it is worth starting to think of where to go to – but then, we are on our own land given to us by God,” she finished.

Widespread public anger at Baikonur’s activity has assumed mythical proportions. Rocket launchings are widely blamed for fierce sandstorms that increasingly bedevil western Kazakhstan as the Aral Sea continues to dry up. According to Dr. Sharapat Medotov, deputy head doctor at the city hospital in Aralsk, he has measured increased chemical concentration in the air following launchings. “On the day they launch a rocket, sand storms and therefore chemicals rise up,” he told a French reporter last summer. “When this happens, you can’t even open your eyes.”

Local medical personal have reported this correlation to international health and financial organizations, but no scientific explanation for the claimed correlation has ever been established. Nevertheless it is commonly believed to be true.

Direction of the trajectory

What these rumblings of discontent portend for the future of the cosmodrome remains hazy. It is a major source of hard currency for the Kazakh government, and provides jobs—even if mostly as restaurant staff and street cleaners—for thousands of local people.

The cosmodrome has faced disaster before. In the early 1990’s, as Soviet funding was cut off, thousands of people fled back to Russia. Those that remained endured decaying infrastructure, apartment gas explosions, and, in 1994, the worst winter snowfall in a century.

There were observers at Baikonur, in Moscow, and in the West (myself among them) who questioned whether the spaceport could survive. While Clinton Administration officials and hired think-tank experts pooh-poohed the panicky predictions with polyannish hand-waving, the collapsing situation—even more serious than the pessimists had suggested—was turned around by the surge of commercial investments that far outstripped all estimates.

So the spaceport survived, based mainly on the arrival of Western customers. Both NASA funds and also investments by French, German, and American corporations restored and improved the fundamental space operations equipment, as well as facilities for foreign visitors.

The local politicians rally the public with a slogan that has more than a grain of truth: “The difficulties that lie ahead are minor compared to those we have already overcome.” But in previous decades, the spaceport had the entire Soviet Union behind it, and now the last vestiges of Moscow’s authority are withdrawing.

Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev remain energetically committed to the continued Russian (and foreign customer) use of Baikonur. They ceremoniously met there again last week for the launching of a Russian-built Kazakh communications satellite called “KazSat”.

The Russian mayor of Baikonur, a former military officer named Aleksandr Mezentsev, has been assuring reporters that the concerns of Kazakh nationals are now being taken into account. “We have analyzed an appeal, and we have begun inviting specialists here to discuss this issue,” he told an Almaty television reporter in mid-May.

Such meetings are indeed occurring. Anatoliy Perminov, head of the Russian Space Agency (and himself another former Russian military officer), opened a session on May 22. On the agenda, at last, were items dealing with the city services, the constitutional rights of the majority Kazakh population, the allocation of radio station frequencies, and the improvement of medical and educational services.

At the other end of the threat spectrum from low-level terrorism is the 800-pound gorilla in Baikonur’s future: what happens when the current dictator is no longer in power?

The question facing the space center is whether more bureaucratic proclamations and presidential handshakes will lead to concrete steps that persuade most Kazakhs that there is hope for improvement. Without such hope, and with the explosive mix of internal anger and outside agitators, the unmeasurable but non-zero chances of a dramatic act of violence—a cut power line, a bullet through a fuel storage tank, a bomb on a road, even an attack on Russian or foreign personnel—remains.

Any interruption of space operations at Baikonur will leave a widening circle of ripples around the Earth and off it. It's not necessary for somebody to cripple the base: even merely the loss of confidence in the hitherto highly secure facility will have schedule, financial, and human impacts.

At the other end of the threat spectrum from low-level terrorism is the 800-pound gorilla in Baikonur’s future: what happens when the current dictator is no longer in power? He cut the deals that allow Russia to stay (and allows the space station to survive), and he has held off nationalistic objections. He has also sent token military units to Iraq, if the terror network didn’t already have reasons to want to confront him—and a recent string of “mysterious” murders of political opponents is alienating even moderate opposition forces there. Relying on his immortal good will rests on the unspoken assumption that the friendly dictator live forever—and the late twentieth century has taught us how effective (e.g., Somosa, the Shah, et.) this approach has always turned out to be.

This is not just a local problem, or some other country’s problem: the US has, for political reasons, placed Baikonur directly in the critical path of our space future, and any threat to that path is a threat aimed directly at us.

The survival of the Baikonur cosmodrome in the past decade has been directly the result of its internationalization, and the on-going demilitarization of the facility is a laudable further advance in this trend. However, this lays a wider responsibility for its future, as Europe and Kazakhstan and even private US security firms need to get more intimately involved, supplementing and replacing Russia’s often inept and overbearing (at times brutal) approach to the USSR’s former Islamic subject states over the past decade.

How do we dodge this bullet? The first step has got to be to see it coming. And the second step is to realize that we share the responsibility—and the cost—of preventing it striking.


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