Staunton, June 13 – Ten days ago, the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan was supposed to mark its 65th anniversary, but that event has been postponed as a result of the pandemic to October 4 which will be the 63rd anniversary of the launch by the Soviet Union of sputnik.
But an online conference did take place, with Russian and Kazakh experts on space exploration talking about the past and present of what was once the USSR’s only launching facility and now has a less certain future (ritmeurasia.org/news--2020-06-13--bajkonur-perezagruzka.-inercija-postsovetskih-processov-i-sovmestnye-plany-kazahstana-i-rossii-49461).
Sergey Kozlov, a Kazakhstan legal specialist, said the current situation of Baikonur is unique among international space centers in that a site run by one country, in this case, Russia, is located on the territory of another, Kazakhstan, an arrangement that promotes cooperation but also raises questions in both countries.
Russia has a contract to rent the facility until 2050 for 115 million US dollars a year. That money goes into Kazakhstan’s general fund; in addition, it maintains the facility and subsidizes it at the same rate as Moscow does for a city of federal importance. This represents a significant Russian contribution to Kazakhstan.
For Russia, however, which has additional space centers at Plesetsk and Vostochny, Baikonur is more about geopolitics than about space exploration, giving Russia influence over Kazakhstan but also providing a Russian facility outside of Russia with which to develop ties with the space programs of third countries.
Many Kazakhs see the continuing operation of Baikonur as very much to their own advantage. They now have five satellites of their own in orbit, and they are cooperating not just with Russia but also with a number of other countries to launch satellites for other countries as well.
But according to Almaty geographer Marat Shibutov, an active supporter of Baikonur, there are increasing signs of “Ludditism and technophobia” among some Kazakhs who view the facility as a survival of the imperial past rather than something which offers them advantages for the future. Some would even like to see it closed.
As a result, Adil Kaukenov, the head of Kazakhstan’s China Center, says, “a negative image about breakthrough space technologies which have the potential for work long years into the future is being created. This problem,” he says, “is connected to the fact that at present Kazakhstan residents feel little attachment to Baikonur.”
Russia very much wants to keep Baikonur especially given the problems at Vostochny, but whether Kazakhstan will be equally enthusiastic is now in question, making what was once the pride of the Soviet space program into a litmus test of Moscow’s relations with the former union republics.