Eyewitness: Kazakhstan's biological timebomb

May 4, 2001

Scientists at an agricultural research institute in Kazakhstan say that they have been sidelined by the ministries of agriculture and education since last summer when they revealed an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease - something the authorities wanted kept secret.

The institute's complaints, that wages and other funds have not been paid, were aired on national television last week, and it emphasised the Soviet legacy of such establishments. In Soviet times, the institute was a secret biological weapons facility. It still owns a collection of some 160 highly lethal viruses targeted at animals.

Derek Averre, research fellow at Birmingham University's Centre for Russian and East European Studies, said Soviet military research in chemical and biological weapons had been spread across several republics. "There is still a lot of work to be done to make sure that they do not present a hazard. Assistance from the United States is being scaled down. There is a constituency (in the US) that feels that it is not getting value for money on [CBW reduction] programmes and that there is no guarantee that former offensive programmes have been discontinued," he said.

Kazakhstan's export controls meet international nuclear, chemical and biological non-proliferation agreements, but its record with conventional arms does not inspire confidence. After a scandal over the sale of MiG fighters to North Korea, Russian defence experts accused Kazakhstan of profiting from Russian military technology sold to rogue states.

Recently, Islamic militants have entered Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, raising the possibility of a terrorist raid on a CBW facility. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are creating a rapid reaction force, but the threat is serious, said Paul Wilkinson, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism at St Andrews University. "There may be individuals who can be got at by malevolent groups or rogue regimes. Morale must be very low, and it might be very tempting to pass on information."

Professor Wilkinson said there was a role for international lobbying. "Recently, a number of scientists in the US have expressed concern about security at such institutions - not only those holding stores of pathogens, but also chemical and nuclear material."

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