The Land of Anthrax and H-Bombs: It Came into Being When Stalin Decreed It and the Soviets Used It for Testing Weapons of Mass Destruction. but Today, Kazakhstan Matters to Us All. (Features)

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It was on New Year's Day, standing on a snowy mountain top overlooking Almaty; that I understood something about what makes Kazakhstantick. Two teenage girls were eating a horsemeat picnic under a tree whose branches bore hundreds of coloured ribbons, every one a wish, they told me, according to shamanistic lore. Nearby, a stately old couple sat admiring the view: Mira and Vladimir -- a retired postal clerk whose English was infinitely better than my creaky Russian -- had just come out of Orthodox mass. As we spoke, the sound of a muezzin wafted up from the mists below. Then I met a shopkeeper and his family, camped in the snow, who pressed a plastic cup of cognac into my hand and invited me to toast the future with them. Like everyone else I met in Kazakhstan, they were delighted that a Brit should choose to spend Christmas there, but they had one big question: why was democratic Britain following George Bush on Iraq? The best answer I could come up with was: "You aren't the only ones ruled by a dictator."

Kazakhstan may be classed as Muslim, but one couldn't wish for a better example of pluralist tolerance than what I found on that mountain. The country is vast -- as big as western Europe, linking the Caspian Sea and China--but so is our ignorance of it. Together with Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, it represents a black hole in our geopolitical consciousness. By and large, the only westerners who can tell the "stans" apart are oilmen and the US military: Uzbekistan is now America's new best friend (despite its appalling human rights record) and US money is pouring into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as a quid pro quo for logistical support in the war on terror.

Yet, war or no war, what happens in these states will have a serious bearing on all our futures. Some contain imminent menace -- the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has already spilled far beyond that country's borders -- but Kazakhstan, the richest of the five, is still untainted by militant anti-westernism. How long this remains true will depend entirely on how the west behaves. If we foul up as we did in the Gulf -- relating not to the people but merely to their rulers -- we risk generating nothing but popular hate. But if we manage to nudge Kazakhstan towards democratic openness, we may induce the other stans to move that way as well: all are currently run by ex-communist dictators, and all are susceptible to persuasion. With China unpredictable and Russia -- Kazakhstan's closest ally -- inherently unstable, the stakes are high in central Asia. Kazakhstan is at the crossroads, and therefore so are we.

Kazakhstan's government bureaucracy is still sclerotically Soviet, but there's no doubting the desire of its young intelligentsia to escape from the tyranny of the past. Indeed, their country's woes predate its existence in its present form, and go back to a time when the Kazakhs were nomads without a state of any kind. Russian "protection" in the 18th century became outright colonialism in the 19th, when the Kazakhs were officially stripped of their privileged status as descendants of Genghis Khan.

In 1914 their cattle and cotton were requisitioned for the Russian war effort; when they resisted, whole villages were massacred. The Bolsheviks proved just as repressive, and were no less hated: they viciously put down a short-lived government that might, had it prospered, have led to a remarkably westernised central Asian state. Instead, out of the vast land mass known as Turkestan -- subdivided by clan loyalties rather than geographical frontiers -- Stalin invented five new nations. Thus did the unnatural birth of Kazakhstan take place.

Corralled in their collective farms, these ex-nomads spent the next 70 years in politically frozen inanition, but the Soviets finally got their come-uppance. By using the Kazakh steppes as their testing ground for weapons of mass destruction -- everything from the plague and anthrax to nuclear bombs -- they provoked the first popular protest movement the USSR had ever seen; in 1989, demonstrators at Semipalatinsk forced an end to all tests in Kazakhstan. …