While the rest of the United Nations was debating Palestinian statehood late last week, one high-ranking UN official dropped a piece of nuclear intrigue that went relatively unnoticed. According to RIA Novosti, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, former Kazakhstani foreign minister and current director-general of the UN office in Geneva, called attention to an as-yet unknown piece of nuclear history.
“At the start of 1992, the [Kazakh] Foreign Ministry received through diplomatic channels a letter to the president of Kazakhstan from the leader of the Libyan revolution, Muammar Gaddafi, proposing that he keep the country’s nuclear arsenal in the capacity of, as he wrote, the first Muslim atomic bombs,” said Tokayev. According to the foreign minister, the becloaked Gaddafi had offered “many billions” for the retention of at least a portion of the 1,410 warheads remaining on Kazakhstani territory.
Gaddafi, rapt by his own nuclear ambitions and flush in oil fundings, had hoped to circumvent the entire research-development-annihilate phase of nuclear production. He saw a state in flux, and he saw an opportunity for a nuclear coup. And Nazarbayev — the Leader of the Nation, Elbasy — turned him down, shipping his weaponry northward and, as Tokayev noted, gaining the “political and moral right to head a global anti-nuclear movement.”
Certainly, the tale of Kazakhstan’s nuclear donation is a remarkable one, with as many parties vying for claims of credit — say it was a coup of Bush I diplomacy; say it was an inevitability, due to the presence of Russian troops — as there are reasons to laud the decision. Gaddafi’s offer and Nazarbayev’s denial add one further layer of brinkmanship and complexity to an already heady mess of interests. Tokayev’s exact claim is not yet entirely clear — The Hindu makes it appear that Gaddafi hoped to keep the warheads on Kazakhstani territory, offering the billions “for their maintenance” — but there’s little question that Almaty could have used the cash influx. Nazarbayev’s refusal was a right one.
Before we pile the plaudits on the still-president, though, there are a few matters remaining at hand. Tokayev’s curious claim has not yet been backed up by any documentation, and exists thus far as convenient, baseless claim. RFE/RL’s Zach Peterson informed me that Tokayev claimed documentation stood in “Kazakhstan’s files,” and that RFE/RL would be looking into the matter.
But then, voiced, non-WikiLeaked claims are common and understandable. What’s a bit more noteworthy is the timing of it all. The claim — just floating there, meant to be taken on its face — came in conjunction with the inaugural First President’s Day.* A line exists, somewhere, between Central Asian penchants for holiday celebrations — every week brings a new reason for communal vodka, it would seem — and cult of personality. And while I’ll leave such demarcations to political scientists proper, this holiday seems to have blurred that line more than any previous:
[First President’s Day included] a carefully choreographed pageant by some 30,000 performers in an arena in the capital Astana, including mass singing and banner-waving.
Across the country, schoolchildren and state employees held demonstrations of affection, concerts, and sports events in his honor. To what extent the participation was voluntary was unclear.
*There’s a bizarre coincidence in that Nazarbayev placed the First President’s Day on the same date as World AIDS Day. I’m sure it wasn’t more than mere oversight, but, unfortunately, Elbasy‘s shadow will further sideline a disease that continues to ravage the post-Soviet sphere.
More than merely adding to Elbasy‘s litany of achievements, however, the timing of the announcement comes but days after one of the most notable, and most worrisome, back-slides that Kazakhstani media has seen since independence. The details of the clampdown are as murky as the claims are tired; the observations are as unanimous as the implications are obvious. Shuttering K+, Vzglyad, and Respublika effectively removes any pretense of plurality. It places a final, inevitable muzzle on oppositional voice, a vice that had been tightening since Zhanaozen. As one journalist noted, “[The] lawsuits to close K+, StanTV, Vzglyad, Respublika mark the end of any ‘soft’ authoritarianism in Kazakhstan.”
Al-Jazeera managed to obtain video of the unannounced search-and-seizures, as well as the measures to the which the publications have since resorted:
Thus, what better timing to float the notion that Nazarbayev — a man as kept by his international image as any in Central Asia — had prevented the bugaboo Gaddafi from obtaining a Soviet-era stockpile? What better method to provide a bulwark against claims of personality cult? What better way to buttress a future Nobel Prize candidacy, then to say that you had prevented A Tyrant from landing control of nuclear weaponry?*
*American Samoa representative Eni Faleomavaega, a non-voting delegate who had previously nominated Nazarbayev for the Peace Prize, recently dropped his bid to become a ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee. I’ll let you pass your own judgments.
As it is, a litany of what-if scenarios have arisen since Tokayev’s claim first dropped. But why would someone as kept with image management wait two decades to let this news break? Preventing Gaddafi from nabbing any nukes is a thoroughly laudable move, if the details and documentation come to light. But, until then, let’s maintain a weather eye on Elbasy‘s clampdowns and cults, and realize that claims of this nature are always potential charade.