When Kazakhstan became independent 22 years ago and inherited some of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons, it decided to give them up. If you follow Kazakhstan at all, you know this because Kazakhstan's government doesn't waste a single opportunity to mention the fact.
Kazakhstan has made its status as one of the few governments to ever give up nuclear weapons the centerpiece of its efforts to position itself as a responsible member of the global community. It has started the anti-nuclear weapons testing group The Atom Project, and hosted international diplomatic negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.
Kazakhstan, of course, not only hosted Soviet nuclear weapons but was the site of Soviet nuclear weapons testing, with devastating consequences for the long-term health of Kazakhstan's people. In the narrative that Kazakhstan has constructed since then, it was the searing experience of being subject to nuclear tests that made Kazakhstan give up its nukes.
Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in a New York Times op-ed from 2012 entitled "What Iran Can Learn From Kazakhstan," wrote that:
Such was the feeling among our people that we closed the Semipalatinsk site even before we became an independent country on the breakup of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. With independence, we became the world’s fourth-largest nuclear power. One of our first acts as a sovereign nation was voluntarily to give up these weapons.
Since then, we have worked tirelessly to encourage other countries to follow our lead and build a world in which the threat of nuclear weapons belongs to history.
But Nazarbayev is, above all, a pragmatist who is unlikely to have made such a momentous decision on purely sentimental grounds. And you don't have to look very far to find the real story of why he gave up nuclear weapons: just look at the officially authorized biography Nazarbayev And The Making of Modern Kazakhstan, and this account of a meeting between Nazarbayev and American officials including Secretary of State James Baker:
[Nazarbayev] reassured his American guests that Kazakhstan had no aspiration to join the military club of nuclear powers; that it was realistic about its inability to master the technicalities and pay the costs of maintaining the missiles stationed on its soil, and that he was a President with a long history of opposition to the presence of nuclear installations in his country. However, Nazarbayev made it clear that he was not going to renounce possession of Kazakhstan's nuclear weapons without getting something in return. “I was initially after security guarantees,” he has recalled.
James Baker, who knew that it would be impossible for the United States to become the security guarantor of a former Soviet republic with a 3,500 mile border with Russia, tried to cool Nazarbayev from this demand with some tough talk. It ended with a stern warning that three American missiles were targeted at each one of the ICBMs stationed in Kazakhstan. “I am not frightened of that and anyway it is not the point,” replied Nazarbayev. “We will decide everything on an equal basis. First of all, we need to know what Kazakhstan will get in return for dismantling these weapons....”
“Nazarbayev also insisted that Kazakhstan did not want a nuclear future. He was unimpressed by the domestic voices, the Kazakhstani equivalent of neocons, who wanted the country's young and untrained military forces to take control of the missiles as if they were a national independent nuclear deterrent. The President was equally contemptuous of the secret approaches he received from Arab envoys urging him to retain what they called “an Islamic bomb.”
One of these emissaries delivered a flowery letter from the Libyan leader, Muammar Ghadaffi, pleading with Nazarbayev to keep the nuclear arsenal in place “for the good of Islam.” Another envoy, from an oil-rich state in the Middle East, offered to provide US$6 billion to Kazakhstan to defray the maintenance costs of its nuclear forces. Nazarbayev regarded such propositions as ridiculous. He wanted international recognition, respectability, investment and security. These objectives were incompatible with keeping the nuclear arsenal.”
What Kazakhstan got in return was substantial U.S. aid for the technical work of getting rid of the weapons, and more generally, a status as a responsible member of the international community -- as the biography puts it, "international recognition, respectability, investment and security." As self-serving as the biography can be, that account is largely consistent with independent accounts.
Nevertheless, this mawkish narrative of Kazakhstan giving up its nukes because of its painful history is gaining traction, for example in this recent story in The Atlantic . And with an upcoming nuclear-themed reporting trip to Kazakhstan by the respected International Reporting Project, we will soon be seeing many more features about Kazakhstan's nuclear story.
There is nothing particularly shameful about the real story of why Kazakhstan gave up its nuclear weapons. Indeed, Kazakhs should be pleased that their president negotiated hard and made sure the country benefited from his decision, rather than basing it on an emotional response to nuclear weapons. But the real story is less interesting than the sentimental version. It's better suited for an international relations journal than a popular magazine, and journalists can fall easily for the irresistible hook of the victim overcoming its painful past by making a principled, self-sacrificing choice.
Kazakhstan has a long record of paying for positive coverage. But the genius of this narrative is that it's attractive enough to journalists without having to pay them. Whoever designed this PR strategy deserves the handsome paycheck he or she no doubt received, it's a brilliant bit of spin.
It's a tough balance for journalists to manage. On the one hand, the nuclear story is interesting, and not every story has to be about how Kazakhstan is a dictatorship. But, as EurasiaNet's Joanna Lillis pointed out, this narrative also serves to "shape Kazakhstan's image" and divert attention from international criticism of its steadily worsening authoritarianism. But the least we can do is make sure we aren't doing Kazakhstan's PR work for them.