It is going to be exactly 30 years since the state entity called the USSR disappeared from the map of the world. What is interesting about that date? Because there were many historic turning points in this arena that could have thrown a vast area of 22.4 million square kilometers into chaos and affected the entire world.
If anyone thinks that the collapse of the USSR was painful only for the former Soviet republics, they are deeply mistaken. In 1991, representatives of the US and many European powers were extremely concerned about the uncontrolled process of destabilization.
Yes, the fall of the iron curtain was welcomed and reassuring. It was an age of romance, a hope for a safer world. On the other hand, the fate of the nuclear weapons of the former superpower was not clear. In particular, besides Russia strategic missile units were based in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. There were more than 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles in the Kazakh steppes alone, as well as more than 1,000 nuclear warheads.
In the chaos of collapse, nuclear materials, which the Soviet Union was rich in, could have fallen into the hands of terrorists. Suffice it to recall how in 1994 at the Ulba plant in Kazakhstan a secret storage site was discovered, “forgotten” by Moscow, where 600 kilograms of highly enriched weapons-grade uranium was stored. International terrorists got wind of the discovery. The dangerous cargo had to be urgently exported as part of a secret «Sapphire» operation involving US and Kazakh special services.
Notably, the then President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was offered billions of dollars to keep nuclear weapons, and the first ever Muslim nuclear power appeared on the world map. One day a flight from Libyan Jamahiriya leader Muammar Gaddafi arrived in Kazakhstan, packed to the brim with cash dollars to maintain the nuclear arsenal.
And what would have happened if the head of the young republic, Nursultan Nazarbayev, had been tempted by easy money to solve the severe socio-economic crisis in which his country found itself?
This was a decisive turning point. In the end, Kazakhstan opted for non-nuclear status. But before that, there were difficult negotiations that began in 1991. Secretary of State James Becker was involved on behalf of the United States. The United States aimed to resolve the issue with minimal financial losses to itself, while Nursultan Nazarbayev demanded legal security guarantees from the nuclear powers and closer economic cooperation.
As a result, Central Asia became a nuclear-weapon-free zone, and Kazakhstan became a leader in attracting foreign investment in Central Asia and one of the leaders of the anti-nuclear movement in the world.
The second crossroads, which could have turned history in a completely incomprehensible direction, relates to another equally important event in August 1991 – the coup d’état in Moscow. Representatives of the self-styled State Committee on the State of Emergency (SCSE), taking over power, locked the President of the USSR Gorbachev at his dacha. If regional elites had supported the putschists, the Soviet Union could have survived at its worst, with a backlash to repression and violent solutions to problems.
What about the elites? In some places, they supported the SCSE. Somewhere they took a wait-and-see position. For example, Ukraine, where Mikhail Gorbachev ended up under house arrest, did not show itself in any way.
Much attention was focused on Kazakhstan those days, as Nazarbayev’s figure was one of the political heavyweights on the political scene of the USSR – he was asked to head the Soviet Union government. Nazarbayev, by the way, turned out to be more courageous. He refused to impose a state of emergency and declared the actions of the SCSE unconstitutional. Moreover, when the putschists were about to attack the White House in Moscow, where Russian President Boris Yeltsin had taken refuge, it was the Kazakh leader who, through many negotiations and consultations, helped overcome the political crisis. In particular, the archives have preserved records of his telephone conversations with the Minister of Defense of the USSR Yazov, in which he reasoned with the combatant general who gave the order to bring tanks into Moscow. Yazov eventually listened and withdrew the troops, subsequently describing everything that happened a big stupidity.
The third crossroads threatened the collapse of the USSR according to the ‘Czechoslovak scenario’. Following the Belovezh agreements of 8 December 1991, a total crisis of governance emerged across a vast territory. The three Soviet republics – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – effectively declared unilaterally that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had ceased to exist as a “subject of international law and geopolitical reality”.
This was at a time when negotiations were continuing to preserve the USSR in the form of a confederation that all Western countries supported for fear of the collapse of the colossus on clay feet that could trigger tectonic shifts around the world.
The West tried gently to put its long-standing opponent to the ground so as not to shake the nuclear arsenal when falling, as mentioned above. However, what happened that happened. This could have provoked and provoked in the future new conflicts already mired in the chaos of the USSR. By that time, Nagorno-Karabakh, as well as the entire Caucasus, Transnistria, tension was growing in Tajikistan, where a little later a civil war broke out.
The Slavic republics seemed to fend off the growing crisis by forming a triple union. The Turkic republics, in turn, spoke of the need to create their own union. New dividing lines were emerging on the map of Eurasia, which could provoke many new conflicts on national and religious grounds, turning a vast territory into a new source of global instability.
What stopped this process and gave the divorce of the former Soviet republics a civilized character? Nursultan Nazarbayev. He assembled the leaders of the former Soviet republics in the capital of Kazakhstan to form the Commonwealth of Independent States, which put a legitimate end to the collapse of the USSR this time.
Taking all the above into consideration, it is easy to conclude that it was the role of Kazakhstan’s leader that made the process of the collapse of the USSR more favorable for everyone both for world politics and for the populations of the former union member states. In addition, his further actions only strengthened the process. Kazakhstan has become an anchor of stability in Central Asia. It is the only country that has managed to resolve the border issue with all of its neighbors including the Caspian Sea which is rich in oil resources. Neither the Russian Empire in the 19th century nor the Soviet Union in the 20th could reach an agreement with China on the division of territory. Nursultan Nazarbayev could. But not through concessions, but through mutual compromises. Here is just one very eloquent figure: the area of Kazakhstan within the USSR was 2 million 717 square kilometers, the area of independent Kazakhstan today is 2 million 725 thousand square kilometers. As we can see, thanks to successful negotiations on the highest level and laborious work of diplomats, Kazakhstan has not only gained territory, but also solved the main destabilizing factor of modern times – the issue of unsettled borders.