Kazakhstan and Russia have moved to defuse a spat over Moscow’s use of the world’s largest spaceport, which is vital for Russia to maintain its standing as a space power.
Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrisov and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov smoothed over accounts of a rift between the two close allies during talks in Moscow on January 25, with Idrisov describing reports that Kazakhstan was planning to tear up Russia’s lease of the strategic Baikonur cosmodrome as “absurd.”
The row erupted on December 10, when Kazakhstan’s National Space Agency director, Talgat Musabayev, said Astana was looking to renegotiate the deal. Moscow leases the site from Kazakhstan for $115 million per year. The current agreement runs until 2050.
Musabayev said President Nursultan Nazarbayev had ordered work on “drawing up a new, all-encompassing agreement on the Baikonur site, which could envisage a withdrawal from leasing relations.” “We are not saying that we will immediately halt the lease,” he added, but abandoning it “in stages” was possible.
His remarks provoked an outcry in Russia, which is dependent on Baikonur to launch all its manned space missions and most commercial satellites. Moscow is building its own spaceport in its Far East, but the first launch there is not due until 2015.
The row escalated after Kazakhstan revealed that it was allotting Russia only 12 Proton rocket launches from Baikonur in 2013, against the 17 Moscow desires. Russia’s Federal Space Agency says this will prevent it from fulfilling contractual obligations and cost it $500 million.
The day before the two foreign ministers met, the pro-Kremlin Russian daily Izvestiya reported that Moscow had sent Astana a warning that if the launch schedule is not reassessed, “Russia will be forced to review its position on the expediency of continuing bilateral cooperation on joint projects.”
Tempers were frayed by the time Lavrov and Idrisov met, but publicly the two downplayed the row. Lavrov said there was nothing “sensational” about the launch schedule dispute, which he linked to “Kazakhstan’s concern about environmental consequences.” Kazakhstan has previously suspended Proton launches following spills of toxic rocket fuel, but Lavrov said Russia was doing everything to “improve environmental aspects” of its launches.
In an interview with Russia’s Kommersant daily on January 24, Idrisov played down the lease review, saying both sides were just “thinking everything through together and taking measures for the full-fledged use of Baikonur’s potential […] so that Russia and Kazakhstan continue growing their space potential.”
Kazakhstan has “its own space ambitions” and “these are all healthy ambitions, to try and receive the maximum out of what we have in our hands,” Idrisov added.
The diplomats have defused the debate, for now, but the real tough talk will start on January 30, when a Russo-Kazakh intergovernmental commission gets down to business discussing the future of Baikonur.