By Arman Kaliyev
ALMATY -- Russian missile tests at Sary Shagan on the shores of Lake Balkhash in Karaganda Province are raising concerns among Kazakhstani citizens and environmentalists.
The Kremlin's new anti-ballistic missile system completed its test April 2 when it destroyed its target, according to Maj. Gen. Andrey Prikhodko of Russia's Aerospace Forces.
The missile defence system is intended to protect Moscow from threats coming from air and space, according to Krasnaya Zvezda, the Russian Ministry of Defence newspaper.
But the continuation of Russia's military experiments on Kazakhstani soil is raising concerns about the immediate impact on the environment -- as well as the Kremlin's future plans for the sovereignty of the former Soviet republic.
"Today they are testing their super missiles on our soil, and tomorrow they can annex our northern provinces, the way they did with Ukraine," Kuat Asenbayuly, a 33-year-old resident of Astana, told Caravanserai. "[Russian President] Vladimir Putin is an unpredictable leader for whom there is only one value --Russia's interests."
Kazakhstan this week celebrated the 20th anniversary of Astana's designation as the national capital. Observers widely interpreted the shift of the capital from Almaty to Astana in 1998 as an expression of Kazakhstan's determination to "plant the flag" in its north, which borders Russia.
Russia has been leasing the Sary Shagan testing range in south-eastern Kazakhstan to develop and test missiles since 1996. During these years, local environmentalists have repeatedly raised concerns over contamination from toxic waste.
Parts of missiles fall off during tests. Spilled rocket fuel leaks into the soil and water. Missile launches pollute the air.
Kazakhstanis have been expressing their outrage for years that Russia has been doing environmentally hazardous tests in Kazakhstan.
"Why has Russia, a country with an enormous area, not constructed its own testing range in all these years? It will destroy our environment and leave. And we will continue to live here," Alim Razayev, a 25-year-old social media manager from Almaty, told Caravanserai.
Environmentalists and local residents sounded the alarm in 2011 when developers discussed building a tourist resort at Balkhash-Nursaya, near the missile testing grounds, reported Time.kz.
Hazardous materials in the soil would endanger tourists, they warned.
Construction of the resort has stagnated for years, with only 50 yurts built and functioning so far, as the developers struggle to find investors.
Oleg Sorochinskii, a Russian reservist lieutenant colonel, told Time.kz for the 2011 article that he was fired from the ranks of Sary Shagan leadership when he refused an order to bury radioactive and toxic components of military equipment near the lake.
"Some [plutonium-containing] capsules were simply scattered on the banks of the lake," he said, adding that officials from Russian Military Unit 03080 maliciously covered up testing range-related environmental problems that endanger the local population's lives.
"No one can reliably say how many tonnes of hazardous substances have been poured on the ground near Lake Balkhash or exactly where," Konstantin Yudin, deputy director of the ECOMuseum in Karaganda city, told Time.kz for the same article.
"We regularly took [core] samples there ... and found new 'surprises' every year," he said.
Testing at Sary Shagan certainly harms the environment, Mielz Eleusizov, president of the Almaty-based environmental NGO Tabigat, confirmed to Caravanserai.
But much greater cause for concern exists at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the primary spaceport of the Russian space programme, he said.
Russia is not leaving Baikonur anytime soon, having a lease that expires in 2050.
"Heptyl [a toxic component of rocket fuel] used in rockets at Baikonur ... is causing much more damage to our environment," he told Caravanserai.
Villagers living near Baikonur have complained about nausea when vehicles were transporting heptyl in the area, said Zhaylaubay Zhubatov of Almaty, director of the Garysh-Ekologiya research institute, according to a 2016 Tengri News report.
Seven accidental heptyl spills occurred within a decade in Kazakhstan, reported Tengri News in that article, adding that the highly toxic compound remains in the soil for decades.
Russian personnel trying to neutralise the heptyl at the spill sites dumped tonnes of potassium permanganate, another compound, added Tengri News.
"Russia is our strategic ally only on paper," Almaty-based political analyst Ruslan Jangazy told Caravanserai in January.
"In reality, we sometimes observe the Kremlin [perpetrating] unfriendly acts towards us," he said. "This is evidenced by its policy of informational aggression against us, in trade and tariff wars, as well as in their rough handling of the Baikonur Cosmodrome."
Yet another sore point among Kazakhstani environmentalists is Semey (formerly Semipalatinsk), where the USSR conducted almost 460 nuclear tests between 1949 and 1989.
The test explosions there ended decades ago, but a joint Japanese-Kazakhstani study found elevated rates of various cancers, birth defects and cardiovascular ailments among the local population, according to a 2016 EurasiaNet report.