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The sad legacy of nuclear testing

September 2, 2012

Karipbek Kurukov, Ambassador of the Atom Project

The city of Astana has something of “Truman’s World.” Everything glitters and shines, is modern, a show world. You get the feeling that people were put here to be seen by us. The most famous architects of the world strut their stuff on every corner. Looking out from the bar on the 25th floor of the Beijing Palace Hotel Astana one is overwhelmed by the panorama of this new, modern Kazakhstan.

Behind it is the steppe. A flat grassland that extends in all directions as far as you can see. In winter it is cold, colder than most of us can imagine. I ask “how cold?” My Kazakh companion smiles and replies: “Don’t ask, it is very cold.” But the sun is shining now, reflected from the many white surfaces and tinted windows of skyscrapers. It dazzles.

Astana is a completely new city, only 15 years old, the new capital of Kazakhstan. It symbolizes the brave new world of President Nazarbayev: successful, a country of smart investments, a business center between East and West, a trading hub. And at the same time he wants to convey that Kazakhstan represents hope, a land of peace and integration, independent and yet open to cooperation of any kind, reliable and trustworthy. He wants to build a nuclear fuel bank here.

I am in Astana for the international conference “From a Nuclear Test Ban to a Nuclear Weapons Free World“, which began on the International Day against Nuclear Tests, August 29th.

Kazakhstan was the first country to abandon nuclear weapons. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Nazarbayev decided that the best thing to do was to scrap the nuclear weapons they had inherited from the Soviet Union, and a year later he also closed the test site at Semipalatinsk. But despite that, the country’s nuclear legacy was far from over. A much worse heritage awaited the people from eastern Kazakhstan, namely the long-term effects of over 450 nuclear tests from 1949 to 1989. To this day the people of Semey (Kazakh for Semipalatinsk) fight with sickness and death. Karipbek Kuyukov works as an ambassador for these radiation victims. He was born without arms.

“I have seen many families who have suffered terribly. I met a mother who had given birth to ten children, all born with birth defects. These children could not play in the street because they were ashamed of their appearance. Their mother told me to ask the world why she had to suffer so. Eight years ago, all the children had already died, the mother and father as well. After that, I promised to myself I would ask her question.”

Kuyukov asks that question now for the “Atom Project” and calls for a ban on nuclear testing. The radiation victims of Semipalatinsk give the project a face. The Nazarbayev center in Astana commissioned an advertising agency to carry out the project that is promoting the entry into force of the nuclear test ban treaty worldwide. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has not been ratified by enough countries. It can only enter into force when 44 countries, named in Annex 2 of the Treaty, have ratified.

During a break in the meeting of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND) on August 30, I talked with Savas Hadjikyriacou, a Greek Cypriot, who heads the project. His company does not take any money for the project, he says. His aim is to focus on the “human factor” of the issue in order to win as many signatures for a nuclear test ban as possible. 1.5 million people were affected by the consequences of nuclear testing in Kazakhstan alone. Worldwide, there were probably billions.

I ask him about medical data. He wants to put me in touch with those responsible in Nazarbayev center and is certain they have nothing to hide. “They want the world to understand what is going on here,” he says. We talked about a possible IPPNW delegation to Semey to meet doctors there and learn more about the radiation effects. He wants to help facilitate this.

What becomes clear here in Kazakhstan is the meaning of the word “ecocide” – the destruction of the environment on a large-scale. Polly Higgins, a Scottish lawyer, attended the parliamentary assembly and told us about the crime of ecocide. “A law against the crime of ecocide would give teeth to the abolition of nuclear weapons,” she said. She is advocating that the International Criminal Court recognise ecocide as one of the list of crimes against peace and humanity. Ten countries have already criminalized ecocide. Polly tells me she is coming to Berlin in October. I offer to put her in touch with people and organize a round table.

Now, after our last meeting, I’ll fly home.  I’m packing many impressions and, most of all, work in my bag. I have a feeling that I will come back to Kazakhstan, to learn more and understand it better. This country offers a lot more than just a brave new world. Beneath the surface there is an ancient land that has been exploited and destroyed, full of different cultures and histories. Truly the center of our world, between worlds. Kazakhstan is at the heart of future peace.

Xanthe Hall is the nuclear disarmament expert for IPPNW Germany. This article is a translation of a piece first published in German on the German IPPNW blog.

Palace of Independence, Astana

More pictures of Astana, the international conference and the PNND Assembly.

  1. Frank Boulton permalink
    September 2, 2012 6:49 pm

    I should have added that it looks as if the IPPNW Congress in 2014 will be in Khazakstan – which by now you will probably know.


  2. September 2, 2012 2:14 pm

    Martin – I wasn’t trying to paint a picture of the regime at all, but of what I witnessed while in Kazachstan. In such a short article it is hard to convey the amount of impressions I got, even in such a short while. I was trying to bring across the unrealness of Astana and the sense of a “Brave New World” without going further into the controversial area of human rights of which I cannot say very much. There were, however, many discussions about this amongst the participants of the conference. X

  3. September 2, 2012 8:58 am


    While Kazakhstan is to be congratulated for giving up nuclear arms and for its work in this area, i do think you pain too rosy a picture of the current regime. Kazakhs live under a deeply repressive dictatorship, where striking workers are gunned down; where those who work for human rights are imprisoned; and where the media is strictly censored. This blog gives the impression of a progressive leadership modernising their country, which is so far from the truth.



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