In crowd scenes in plays and movies, background actors in Russia are known to repeat the following tongue-twister when trying to feign conversation: “what do you talk about when there's nothing to talk about?” That phrase comes to mind when examining the latest effort by Kazakhstan and Russia to resolve a dispute over rocket launches at the Baikonur space center.
On February 8, a number of Russian-language outlets carried the news that Presidents Vladimir Putin and his Kazakhstani counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev had basically solved the dispute, which appears to center on the price tag for a new launch pad at Baikonur - and who pays for it - during a meeting in Moscow. After the meeting, the Yandex newsfeed was full of headlines like “Putin and Nazarbaev Announce that Acceptable Solutions to Baikonur Have Been Found.”
The funny thing is that it is not clear whether Putin and Nazarbayev came to any agreement at all. The only substantive development to come out of the Moscow meeting was that Kazakhstan and Russia will set aside their Baikonur differences until the fall, when the Belarus-Russia-Kazakhstan Customs Union holds its scheduled meeting in Yekaterinburg.
“We gave the order regarding the preparation of a new Agreement on friendship and cooperation. I hope we will sign it in Yekaterinburg this fall,” said Nazarbayev during the February 8 meeting, as quoted by multiple Russian-language sources, all of which were ambiguous as to whether a new agreement would concern exclusively Baikonur, or whether Baikonur would be just one topic under a broader cooperation agreement.
For his part, Putin said he was glad the number of issues up for discussion was growing between Russia and Kazakhstan, as it signaled a greater volume of cooperation. But neither head of state mentioned the thorny issue of Proton-M rocket launches, or the matter of Bayterek launch site construction, which has hung in the balance of the two countries’ relationship since 2004.
Trouble at Baikonur surfaced last fall, when the head of Kazakhstan's space agency, KazCosmos, hinted Kazakhstan may consider withdrawing from its agreement with Russia. Early this January, Kazakhstan announced it would curtail the number of Russia's largely commercial-use Proton-M rocket launches in 2013 to 12, down from the 17 requested by Russia. While the two countries promptly assembled a joint committee to deal with the issue, Russia has made it clear it would not accept the limits without consequences, complaining that scaling back would cost over $500 million in lost contracts.
Under an agreement from 2004, Russia is obliged to contribute to the construction of a new launch pad at Baikonur intended for a new generation of lighter, more environmentally friendly, Angara rockets, but it has refused to do so based on the estimate put together by Kazakhstani space experts. Instead, Russia has gone ahead with building its own Angara launch site at a new cosmodrome in Siberia and has proposed a scaled-down version for a different rocket launch site at Baikonur.
Russia originally signed its lease agreement on Baikonur back in 1994, gaining exclusive use of the space center and the surrounding city through 2050. The most recent announcement by Putin and Nazarbayev also places the Baikonur question in the larger contest of the Belarus-Russia-Kazakhstan Customs Union, an economic agreement under which the three countries operate in a single, near-borderless, economic space, potentially dominated by Russia.