Central Asian Countries Pose Proliferation Risks, Have Helped Strengthen Nonproliferation Agreements, Experts Say

BOSTON — The five countries that make up the Central Asian region pose significant proliferation risks, but have worked to improve international nonproliferation efforts, experts said yesterday during a panel held at Harvard University.

The risks coming from the five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — are generated by the remnants of the vast former Soviet WMD programs, according to experts. Since gaining their independence, however, the five have undertaken several actions, such as working to create a regional nuclear weapon-free zone, that help to strengthen international nonproliferation regimes.

One of the most significant proliferation risks in Central Asia stems from the former Soviet biological weapons program, which used the region for production and testing of such weapons, said Togzhan Kassenova of the Institute for Politics and International Studies at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. For example, stockpiles of dangerous pathogens remain on Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea — pathogens that could be transferred to the mainland across the shrinking sea by animals or scrap metal scavengers, she said (see GSN, Jan. 9).

While Uzbekistan has made progress in decontaminating its section of the island, the Kazakh section still remains contaminated, Kassenova said. The United States is helping to fund the cleanup of the island through the Cooperative Threat Reduction program.

In addition, poor security at research facilities throughout Central Asia and the “brain drain” of biological scientists in the region also pose biological proliferation risks, Kassenova said. She also said the region is a natural home for several types of pathogens that could be used for weapons purposes, such as anthrax and hemorrhagic fevers.

Terrorists could also work within Central Asia to obtain nuclear weapons-related materials or other radiological materials that could be used in a crude “dirty bomb,” according to Kassenova. For example, there are tens of thousands of “orphaned” radioactive sources throughout the region, which were used during the Soviet era for industrial and medical purposes and in agricultural experiments to extend growing seasons by warming the soil, Kassenova said (see GSN, Oct. 23, 2002). To help illustrate the problem, she said that a 1992 survey in Kazakhstan compiled an inventory of about 100,000 registered radioactive sources. Currently, however, only about half of those sources are still registered — a loss of about 50,000 sources, she said, adding that Kazakhstan was having the most success of the countries in the region in accounting for radioactive sources.

The legacy of the Soviet chemical weapons program also remains a proliferation risk in Central Asia, Kassenova said. For example, she said U.S. forces stationed at an Uzbek military base in June 2002 detected the presence of chemical weapons agents — an incident that illustrated how remnants of the Soviet chemical weapons program persist in the region, she said (see GSN, June 24, 2002). In addition, the porous borders in the region could also make it a transit point for the smuggling of Russian chemical weapons, Kassenova said.

During yesterday’s panel, Wendin Davis Smith of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University also complained that a lack of information on Soviet-era WMD programs helped to contribute to the WMD proliferation risks in Central Asia. Russia has continued to withhold information on Soviet WMD efforts from both the Central Asian states themselves and from nongovernmental organizations working in the region on nonproliferation issues, she said. 

Aiding Nonproliferation EffortsWhile posing WMD proliferation risks, the five Central Asian states have also helped to strengthen international nonproliferation regimes, said Mariya Kravkova of Booz Allen Hamilton Energy Practice in Washington. For example, after gaining independence the Central Asian countries joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty as non-nuclear states, Kravkova said. In addition, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have signed Additional Protocols to their International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards agreements, which gives the agency the authority to conduct more intrusive inspections, she said. Kravkova added that Kazakhstan is close to signing the Additional Protocol as well.

In addition to joining the NPT, the Central Asian states have helped to strengthen international nuclear nonproliferation efforts through their work to create a Central Asian nuclear weapons-free zone, Kravkova said. The five Central Asian states were scheduled to meet in Uzbekistan last month to continue their efforts to establish the zone (see GSN, July 22).

The zone, when created, will help enhance the international nuclear nonproliferation regime, she said, because it borders on two regions of proliferation concern — the Middle East and South Asia — and by the fact that it will be the first such zone in the Northern Hemisphere.

Kravkova also said that two of the five Central Asian countries have also joined the Biological Weapons Convention. Not all the countries in the region have been able to join that treaty, however, because a lack of information on facilities would put them in noncompliance if they were to do so, she said.

October 6, 2003

BOSTON — The five countries that make up the Central Asian region pose significant proliferation risks, but have worked to improve international nonproliferation efforts, experts said yesterday during a panel held at Harvard University.