Kazakhstan has emerged as the unlikely leader of the global campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons. With a tragic nuclear history, and a president eager to make a name for himself on the international stage, this makes more sense than you might think – even if it probably won’t make much of a difference. By SIMON ALLISON.
Nursultan Nazarbayev has chosen a different route. In some ways, the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan is a textbook dictator. He’s been in charge since independence, and has a well deserved reputation for suppressing free speech and torturing dissidents. But instead of craving his own weapon of mass destruction, he has become the face of the struggling movement to eliminate nuclear warheads, which makes him an unlikely crusader for world peace.
On Monday, in his capital Astana – the Dubai of the steppe, the jewel of central Asia, a city so new that it literally sparkles in the semi-desert sun – Nazarbayev hosted delegates from 50 countries in a conference dedicated to “Building a Nuclear Weapon Free World”, including representatives from the Pan-African Parliament and Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Campaigning against nuclear weapons is a central tenet of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, and the conference is the country’s showpiece initiative; an attempt to consolidate and co-ordinate global efforts to ban the bomb.
It helps Nazarbayev’s cause that Kazakhstan occupies the moral high ground on this issue. While still part of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s Semipalatinsk region was Moscow’s favourite nuclear testing ground. Between 1949 and 1989, the area was hit by a staggering 456 nuclear bombs. Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to radiation, and an area the size of Germany contaminated.
“Kazakhstan has suffered from nuclear tests more than any other country in the world,” noted Nazarbayev in his opening address.
Kazakhstan is also one of only four countries in the world to have given up its nuclear weapons. South Africa belongs in this exclusive club too, along with Belarus and the Ukraine. But the club needs to expand.
But even hopeless causes are sometimes victorious, as Ela Gandhi well knows. Her grandfather, a certain Mahatma Gandhi, took on the might of the British Empire with little more than a pair of sandals – and won. The South Africa-based activist told Daily Maverick that there’s no such thing as a hopeless cause, especially when that cause is so self-evidently just.”
“Hope is the most important force that humankind has. The minute you lose hope, well, you’ve lost everything. About nuclear weapons we have to work hard. Because there is only a small group that is working for nuclear in the world. There are more countries that want nuclear disarmament than those who want weapons. So the majority have to become assertive, the majority have to have a bigger voice, and to use every argument possible to get the minority to change.”
The most moving argument of all came courtesy of Maria Ananyeva, a tiny old lady who interrupted proceedings and demanded to speak. Kazkhstan’s foreign minister, knowing when he was beat, gave her the floor, and she described her experience of growing up in the shadow of a nuclear holocaust in Semipalatinsk. She told her audience:
“I saw my first bomb when I was a child in my mother’s tent. It made a disc so huge, enormous, like a planet on the horizon. We felt the heat from that cloud. I was curious, I wanted to see what happened. The disc disappeared and then there was a mushroom. Then the tent was shaking like a matchbox. People tumbled around, some broke their bones. After the blast, the dogs would run away, barking and screaming. I have been affected by the equivalent of 45 Hiroshimas, but I turned out to be a survivor. And I care about the lives of my children.”
Read more at Kazakhstan’s quixotic quest to ban the Bomb