Kazakhstan is proud to be the host of the Baikonur cosmodrome, the world’s first and largest operational space launch facility. A busy spaceport, launching numerous commercial, military and scientific missions annually since 1957, it is located in the desert steppe of southwestern Kazakhstan.
A newly created intergovernmental commission launched on January 30 in Moscow has started working on a new agreement on the administration of the cosmodrome. Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister Kairat Kelimbetov and Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov serve as co-chairs of the commission.
Some bilateral rumblings over Baikonur first surfaced at the end of 2012, when Talgat Mussabayev, head of KazCosmos, Kazakhstan’s Space Agency, announced that Astana might want to renegotiate the lease terms. Otherwise, he suggested, Kazakhstan could abrogate the existing pact and assert its sovereign control over the facility.
“The head of state has set a task before us and discussed the issue with Vladimir Putin. It was agreed to consider developing a new comprehensive agreement on the Baikonur complex which could envisage termination of the lease,” Mussabayev said, speaking in the Mazhjilis (the lower house of Kazakhstan’s Parliament) on December 10, 2012.
Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov assured Russian newspaper Kommersant that Kazakhstan will not stop cooperation with Russia on the Baikonur cosmodrome.
“Russia is a major space power. Therefore, any arguments and assertions regarding stopping cooperation are preposterous,” Idrissov said.
The Kazakh government had agreed to lease the space station to Russia until 2050 but recently the issue of its management has become more topical as Kazakhstan seeks to develop its own space capabilities.
“Kazakhstan hopes to expand its participation in the cosmodrome’s space activities and qualitative development of its space capabilities. Therefore, it would be wrong on our part to miss the opportunity to collaborate closely with such an important space power as Russia at our own cosmodrome,” a note on Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry’s website said on January 10, 2013.
At a meeting between Nursultan Nazarbayev and Vladimir Putin on January 9-10, 2004, in Astana, the two countries signed an agreement on cooperation for the effective use of the Baikonur complex and the lease term was extended to 2050 at the existing rent of $115 million a year. Russia also contributes 1.16 billion rubles, or about $38.5 million, per year to the surrounding city of Baikonur. The Baikonur concession is considered a federal entity within the Russian Federation, possessing the same status as Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Idrissov met Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov on January 25 in Moscow to discuss Baikonur as well as wider interaction within international organisations and integration associations such as the CIS, EurAsEC, Customs Union, Common Economic Space, Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) and the U.N. In particular, they discussed practical measures aimed at strengthening the Kazakhstan-Russia relationship within the framework of interregional and cross-border cooperation in the energy and space spheres, as well as measures for effective implementation of the 2013-2015 Joint Action Plan, approved by the two presidents on December 19, 2012.
Earlier, Russia sent two official notes on Baikonur to Kazakhstan. The first note asked for explanations on statements of Talgat Mussabayev. In the second note Russia informed Kazakhstan that it can stop working on all joint projects if Astana does not permit all launches planned by Russia from the cosmodrome for this year.
Idrissov explained that Mussabayev’s statements were misunderstood by journalists.
“You know, a complicated area requires specific knowledge. The comments of the journalists were so absurd that it was hard for us even to respond to them,” the minister said.
“The presidents of our countries appreciate and cherish Baikonur as a symbol of our close and mutually beneficial cooperation. The cosmodrome is a project focusing on the future. I hope there will be no more unresolved issues in this sphere,” Idrissov said.
At a press conference after the meeting with Idrissov, his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, said, “I would not talk about disagreements or about any special meaning of our correspondence over the note. We correspond regularly on a whole range of issues that inevitably occur when you have a great deal of cooperation, as we do between Russia and Kazakhstan. This interaction also includes the space sector, primarily the use of the Baikonur space launch complex that is traditionally one of our main priorities. During their meeting in Moscow on December 19, 2012, the presidents of Russia and Kazakhstan confirmed the importance of this interaction and the need to continue development of Baikonur as a critical object of our cooperation and a symbol of partnership and alliance.”
“I do not know who published this note in the mass media. We use note correspondence to ensure a standard form of diplomatic relationship. I do not know who published it, or allowed the leak. I think these were people wishing to make a mountain out of a molehill,” he added.
It is natural that two neighbours, Kazakhstan and Russia, would from time to time have issues over such a complex matter as the management of Baikonur. It is also natural for Kazakhstan to want to become more active in terms of developing its own space capabilities.
Just as it has been pursuing a multi-vector foreign policy for the first two decades of its independence, Kazakhstan would be wise to continue with the same approach in its space endeavours, developing ties with long-term partners such as Russia and new ones, such as France and India. The results will benefit all parties concerned.