ALMATY -- Moscow's continued lobbying to construct a nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan underscores the Kremlin's attempt to shore up Russia's influence and undercut sovereignty in the resource-rich Central Asian state, analysts say.
Construction of the plant will cost at least $5 billion, which Russia has offered to lend Kazakhstan in "good faith".
However, the local population sharply opposes the plan and the Kazakh government's enthusiasm has been underwhelming.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev last October rejected the notion of building a nuclear plant near Ulken, Almaty province.
Nevertheless, Russia is still pursuing its ambition.
In a February 10 interview with the pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda v Kazakhstane, Russian ambassador to Kazakhstan Alexey Borodavkin reiterated Russia's intentions to build a nuclear plant in Kazakhstan.
He tried to sell the deal as "clean energy" and an "efficient energy solution".
Russian state-owned nuclear power producer Rosatom "guaranteed that the plant will be safe and environmentally friendly", he said, adding that there are "no risks".
But ordinary Kazakhs are not buying the ambassador's promises.
Many posting on social media are vehemently opposed to the idea, arguing that such a project is very dangerous for the environment and for public health.
They say there is no way they will allow Russia to build a nuclear plant near their homes and to force them to live in fear, citing nuclear catastrophes, particularly the Soviet disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, and the effects of the nuclear tests at the Semipalatinsk (now Semey) test site on Kazakh public health.
From 1949 to 1989, the Soviet Union conducted 456 nuclear explosions at Semipalatinsk, with little regard for public health or the environment, leading to widespread cancer and birth defects in the region.
'Do we need such a future?'
In addition to the evident physical risks, Russia is using the nuclear project to pursue its geopolitical goals in the region, say analysts.
If Moscow executes its plan, it will be able to establish its influence over Kazakhstan's nuclear industry as it co-ordinates the management of the nuclear plant, including performing repairs and maintenance, supplying Russian components, and training specialists, said Dosym Satpayev, director of the Almaty-based Risk Assessment Group consultancy.
"Do we need such a future: depending on Russia, which... is becoming a technological pariah?" he said.
Kazakhstan should instead wager on the development of its natural gas industry, Satpayev said.
Jyldyz Aliyeva, a reporter for the Almaty newspaper Delovaya Nedelya (Business Week), expressed unease that Kazakhstan could pay for the Russian nuclear plant with its sovereignty.
"It's an unbelievably expensive project that will require Kazakhstan to take a huge loan from Russia and that will make it dependent on Moscow," she said.
"That means we will have to grant Russia various preferences and allow it to use our land and resources, and we won't be able to make independent decisions."
Over the past few years, the Kremlin has been aggressively pushing its nuclear agenda in Kazakhstan through propaganda-spouting media outlets such as the Sputnik news agency in an attempt to convince Kazakhs that their country first and foremost needs this project, said Aliyeva.
"They're not just involving journalists in their propaganda, but also scholars, economists and bloggers," she said.
No payoff for Kazakhstan
The nuclear plant makes little economic sense for Kazakhstan, given that in the last decade renewable energy has become cheaper while nuclear energy has become more expensive, said Aset Nauryzbayev of Almaty, an environmental activist and former director of KEGOC, the Kazakh electrical grid's operator.
Nuclear power is now the most expensive source of electricity.
"A nuclear power plant is a huge headache that creates problems not only in the construction phase but also during its operation, and consumers will be the ones paying to solve those problems," he said in a February interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Kazakh service.
Russia is seeking to build infrastructure in Kazakhstan in pursuit of political -- not economic -- goals, Nauryzbayev said, adding that Moscow could deploy its own special forces around the facility to provide security and could supply its own nuclear material.
The Russian venture being foisted on Kazakhstan "makes no sense" for Kazakhstan and "raises suspicions", he said, highlighting a serious negative consequence if the plant ever begins operation: crippling indebtedness to Russia.
"Our duty as the consumers is to not allow them to build the plant because we are going to be paying for it out of our own pocket, not to let them steal money, and not to let them carry out this project, for which we are going to be repaying Russia for decades," Nauryzbayev cautioned.
The Kremlin's repeated "suggestion" to Kazakhstan that it buy a Russian nuclear power station that would take a fortune and many years to build is no surprise, given Russia's inability to accept the loss of resource- and land-rich Kazakhstan after the Soviet collapse.
Russian politicians regularly remind Kazakhs of their vulnerability to their giant northern neighbour and even encourage pro-Kremlin sentiment in Kazakhstan.
In one example, an irredentist Russian organisation known as the National Liberation Movement (NLM) opened an office in Nur-Sultan and is appealing to Kazakhs to join it.
Yevgeny Fyodorov, a deputy in the Russian State Duma who has previously said that part of Kazakhstan's land should be returned to Russia if the Kazakhs do not acknowledge it as a gift, leads the NLM.
The newly adopted doctrine put greater emphasis on armed conflict along the border and measures to mitigate it. In addition, it cited the dangers of hybrid warfare.
A cautious tale from Uzbekistan
Uzbekistan also is the target of a similar Russian attempt to foist influence via an energy project.
In September 2018, the two countries' leaders signed an agreement to build a nuclear plant near Tuzkan Lake in Jizzakh province, Uzbekistan.
Since then, the countries have become bogged down in talks over the massive project.
Actual construction is expected to start in 2022, with the first of the power station's two generating units to go online in 2028. The two sides have not finalised details of the Russian loan that Uzbekistan will need to build the plant.
The project is estimated to cost $11 billion.
Uzbek authorities were forced to make this "political decision" under pressure from Russia, say observers.
"This is a project that was imposed by Moscow despite Uzbekistan's current and long-term interests, and despite the completion of a scrupulous analysis and projections," Alisher Ilkhamov, an independent researcher living in London, wrote for the Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting in 2019.