09ASTANA311, KAZAKHSTAN: ONCE “SECRET” BIOWEAPONS CITY STILL IN

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09ASTANA311 2009-02-20 10:46 2011-08-30 01:44 UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY Embassy Astana

VZCZCXRO7935
OO RUEHAG RUEHAST RUEHBI RUEHCI RUEHDA RUEHDBU RUEHDF RUEHFL RUEHIK
RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHLH RUEHLN RUEHLZ RUEHNEH RUEHNP RUEHPOD RUEHPW
RUEHROV RUEHSK RUEHSR RUEHVK RUEHYG
DE RUEHTA #0311/01 0511046
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 201046Z FEB 09
FM AMEMBASSY ASTANA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 4684
INFO RUCNCIS/CIS COLLECTIVE 1232
RUCNCLS/ALL SOUTH AND CENTRAL ASIA COLLECTIVE
RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING 0615
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO 1321
RUEHUL/AMEMBASSY SEOUL 0316
RHEBAAA/DEPT OF ENERGY WASHDC
RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHDC
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHDC
RUEHRC/DEPT OF AGRICULTURE WASHDC
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RHEFAAA/DIA WASHDC
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC 0794
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC 0710
RUEKJCS/JOINT STAFF WASHDC
RHMFIUU/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 ASTANA 000311 
 
SENSITIVE 
SIPDIS 
 
STATE FOR SCA/CEN, EUR/RUS, ISN 
 
E.O. 12958: N/A 
TAGS: PGOV PINR ECON EINV SOCI TBIO KNNP RS KZ
SUBJECT:  KAZAKHSTAN:  ONCE "SECRET" BIOWEAPONS CITY STILL IN 
TRANSITION 
 
REF:  ASTANA 0254 
 
1.  (U) Sensitive but unclassified.  Not for public Internet. 
 
2.  (SBU) SUMMARY:  PolOff recently accompanied several U.S. 
scientists on a trip to Stepnogorsk.  Once a secret "closed" Soviet 
city dedicated to research on biological weapons, Stepnogorsk today 
represents the opportunities and challenges the Kazakhstani 
government faces in modernizing its overall infrastructure, 
especially its bio-tech centers.  Traveling to Stepnogorsk is 
difficult and the population is small.  The city is still dependent 
on biotechnology and remains an isolated location, overwhelmingly 
populated by ethnic Russians.  Many residents appreciate the stable 
work prospects in the scientific sector, but others are leaving due 
to limited opportunities in other sectors.  The city's 
infrastructure is adequate, but needs investment.  Despite the 
Soviet-era ambience, Kazakhstan's National Center for Biotechnology 
is clearly investing in developing Stepnogorsk.  END SUMMARY. 
 
STEPNOGROSK:  A FORMER SECRET CITY SURROUNDED BY EMPTY VILLAGES 
 
3.  (SBU) Traveling to Stepnogorsk -- population 66,000, located 
approximately 136 miles from Astana in Akmolinsk oblast -- is like 
going back in time.  Transportation options are limited.  Local 
interlocutors told PolOff air connections were discontinued, and the 
train route from Astana to Stepnogorsk is so circuitous few 
travelers use it.  The only viable means of traveling there are by 
car or bus.  There are 12 buses between Astana and Stepnogorsk 
daily, with one-way trips taking approximately three to four hours, 
depending on traffic and road conditions.  The last departure from 
Stepnogorsk back to the capital is at 18:40.  The first half of a 
journey by car is on paved road past empty fields with soil which 
the taxi driver told PolOff is too alkaline to produce crops.  The 
second half is on a bumpy dirt and gravel road with one lane of 
traffic in either direction through an empty steppe landscape dotted 
occasionally by abandoned farming villages.  PolOff persoQly 
observed numerous farmhouses and barns falling apart where they 
stood.  A local taxi driver named Pavel, who drove PolOff and two 
USDA scientists from Astana to Stepnogorsk, was born and raised in 
Stepnogorsk, and told PolOff that during Soviet times, the farming 
region surrounding the city was primarily settled by ethnic Germans 
who left Kazakhstan in the 1990s.  When PolOff asked why there were 
no working farms to replace the empty villages, Pavel claimed it was 
not clear whether the Kazakhstani government owned the land or had 
sold it.  Pavel said that although the region had once produced 
plentiful amounts of grain, uncertainty over land ownership made 
farmers reluctant to invest in needed refurbishment of old equipment 
and irrigation systems. 
 
STILL A "ONE-COMPANY" TOWN 
 
4.  (SBU) Many residents of Stepnogorsk still remain dependent on 
the city's main industry -- biochemistry.  Once a secret "closed" 
Soviet city dedicated to research on biological weapons, 
Stepnogorsk's primary employers today are Biomedpreparat, a 
government research facility under the administration of the 
National Center for Biotechnology, and its two government-funded 
affiliates, the Institute of Agricultural Biotechnology (IAB) and 
the Institute of Industrial Biotechnology (IIB).  The city also 
boasts a nursing school.  Most of Stepnogorsk's residents are ethnic 
Russians.  During a project coordination meeting at IIB with over 10 
scientists, only one scientist was an ethnic Kazakh.  Many of 
PolOff's interlocutors, such as IIB's interpreter, Nadezhda 
Polchenko, had been assigned to Stepnogorsk by the Soviet 
government.  (NOTE:  Polchenko now works as an English teacher in 
several schools, but also interprets for, and teaches English at 
IIB, "to make ends meet."  END NOTE.)  PolOff's interlocutors stated 
that when they were sent to Stepnogorsk, many were not allowed to 
tell their families where they were being sent. 
 
ISOLATION LEAVES A LEGACY OF ALCOHOLISM 
 
 
ASTANA 00000311  002 OF 003 
 
 
5.  (SBU) The after-effects of Stepnogorsk's history of isolation 
continue to affect the city and its residents today, with alcoholism
 
and depression reportedly serious problems. 
As described in reftel, former IIB scientist and USDA project 
director, Dr. Nadirov, died in June 2008.  According to senior IIB 
officials, Nadirov was sent to Stepnogorsk after being involved in 
an accidental, Soviet-era incident of anthrax-poisoning, which 
resulted in a large of number of deaths.  Although reportedly a 
brilliant scientist, Nadirov suffered from alcoholism while in 
Stepnogorsk.  USDA officials who worked with Nadirov told PolOff 
that the research projects he was managing were well-designed and 
were showing excellent promise of meaningful scientific discoveries. 
 However, Nadirov had been known to disappear for several days at a 
time on drinking binges, which interfered with progress. 
 
STABLE EMPLOYMENT FOR YOUNG SCIENTISTS 
 
6.  (SBU) Since Kazakhstan lacks qualified scientific personnel, for 
those who worked in Stepnogorsk at the end of the bio-weapons 
program or came from Russia since Kazakhstan's independence, 
Stepnogorsk offers stable employment opportunities.  One mid-level 
ethnic Russian scientist, a graduate of the Tomsk Institute in 
Russia, told PolOff he had been working at IIB for eight years, and 
was very content with his life and job in Stepnogorsk.  Ethnic 
Russian IIB employee Slava Kenzhebayev, who just defended his Ph.D. 
and is the youngest USDA project manager at IIB, also said he was 
very content in Stepnogorsk. 
 
SMALL-TOWN DANGERS AND CHALLENGES 
 
7.  (SBU) Several interlocutors, however, highlighted some of the 
dangers and challenges of life in Stepnogorsk.  IIB interpreter 
Nadezhda Polchenko told PolOff that when she and her husband sold 
their first apartment in Stepnogorsk, they took the lump-sum cash 
payment that they received home, planning to deposit the money in a 
bank the next morning.  Overnight, the money was stolen, and the 
case was never solved.  Taxi driver Pavel, who had grown up in 
Stepnogorsk, attending the same school where his mother taught, said 
that there were "more long-term opportunities for ethnic Russians in 
Russia than in Stepnogorsk."  After retiring from teaching school, 
his mother moved to Novosibirsk, and Pavel said he was also planning 
to move to Novosibirsk at the end of 2009, along with his ethnic 
Russian wife, who was currently finishing nursing school in 
Stepnogorsk.  Pavel, who owns a small taxi company with several cars 
and employs several drivers, told PolOff he intended to continue to 
run his taxi company from Novosibirsk. 
 
8.  (SBU) Stepnogorsk's infrastructure is adequate, but needs 
investment.  The city's buildings, from its hospital to its central 
bus station to shops, restaurants, and hotels, all appear to be 
modern and in relatively good repair, if a bit poorly-lit and 
spartan.  Scientists at IIB commented on their new spectroscope, 
worth over $30,000, but also expressed concern about whether IIB 
would have frequent power outages during the cold winter, noting 
that the electric company had been having problems generating power. 
 Stepnogorsk Hotel, reportedly the best hotel in town, still uses 
the old Soviet tradition of having guests leave their key with a 
floor warden, and advised guests at check-in of when hot water would 
be available. 
 
9.  (SBU) Despite its Soviet-era ambience, however, there are 
indications that authorities in Astana are intent on modernizing 
Stepnogorsk and turning it into a biotechnology center.  Yerlan 
Ramankulov, Director of the Astana-based National Center for 
Biotechnology (NCB) takes an active interest in Stepnogorsk and is 
directing money, capable personnel, and equipment to the city. 
Ramankulov recently selected a well-respected Kazakhstani scientist, 
Oleg Ten, who graduated with a Ph.D. from Moscow State University, 
to be IIB's new director.  As described in reftel, Ramankulov has 
also been using NCB funds to train Stepnogorsk's scientists and 
encourage international collaboration.  In place of the fermenters 
once used for bio-weapons that were dismantled under joint 
 
ASTANA 00000311  003 OF 003 
 
 
U.S.-Kazakhstani non-proliferation programs, Ramankulov organized a 
public-private enterprise, Biocorm, which installed massive new 
fermenters moved from Almaty, Kazakhstan's former capital. 
Ramankulov, who reportedlQ{4N-?wce agent is trying to get 
to Stepnogorsk to visit its "secret installations."  The film was 
shown on local Kazakhstani TV on February 15.  In some ways, 
Stepnogorsk does not appear to have changed much since the Soviet 
era.  Despite being geographically close to Astana, the difficulties 
of getting there and its small population make it seem secret and 
remote.  With its largely ethnic Russian population, Stepnogorsk has 
strong cultural ties to Russia.  Whether Ramankulov succeeds in his 
efforts to develop Stepnogorsk into a Kazakhstani biotech center 
remains to be seen.  END COMMENT. 
 
HOAGLAND

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