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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Breakdown in Baikonur

A few weeks ago in Leninsk, administrative center of the Baikonur cosmodrome, the body of a 14-year-old boy was found in broad daylight on the town beach. Once Leninsk was considered a peaceful and relatively prosperous place. But the body on the bank of the Syr-Darya didn't surprise anyone. Life in Leninsk has changed so much in the last year that muggings, robberies and drug addiction are now the norm.


Twenty-one thousand people have abandoned the one-time boomtown, more than a quarter of the population. The attrition at Leninsk and Baikonur is a function of the old U. S. S. R'. s political and economic problems and the new Russia's attempts to strengthen its position in the world community.


On July 1, a French astronaut was blasted into space from Baikonur for a three-week stint with Russian counterparts. Though this is the fourth such Franco-Russian flight, it's also a first in several notable respects: the first since the dissolution of the U. S. S. R. ; the first since Baikonur became the legal property - on paper at least - of sovereign Kazakhstan.


In the U. S. S. R'. s sea of outmoded technology, cosmonautics was always an island of top scientific and technical achievement, of huge material and intellectual investment. Russia's best way today to the world economy is through cosmonautics. Especially now that space programs in Europe and America are in the doldrums and could use a little Russian cooperation.


Agreements drafted by the European Community and the Russian Space Agency have assigned a dozen commercial launches to Russia between 1996 and 2000. Russian technology and launch pads may also be used for the Freedom space station now being built by the United States, Europe and Japan. A Russian-American launch is already in the makings. These projects could earn Russia anywhere from $500 million to $1. 5 billion, money which is desperately needed.


But while trusty Russian rockets are ready and waiting to launch satellites from any country in the world, serious obstacles exist. Since most satellites are built with American technology, one must have an export license from the United States to bring them to Russia. Consequently, most contracts of this nature require a high-level political decision, as in last year's signing by Yeltsin and Bush of an agreement to launch the satellite Inmarsat. The United States has insisted on making Russia's admission to the space services market contingent on its not distributing rocket technology. Thus Russia's ill-fated contract to help India design a cryogenic stage for its national carrier rocket sparked much debate.


Formally, the United States was right to protest this contract since these rockets exceed the established limits. But in fact, this particular class of rockets has virtually no military use.


Given the large Western orders Russia is anticipating, why didn't it immediately scrap the contract with India, a mere $120 million? Because that would only reinforce the impression of Russia as an unreliable, unpredictable business partner dependent on the West. Besides, Russia listens to India as the leader of the Third World.


The cryogen engine episode illustrates the problems discussed by the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations in Tokyo. Russia wants to enter the world community as an equal partner but is forever running up against discriminatory Western practices, holdovers from the Cold War.


According to Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Shokhin, if these restrictions are re-moved, Russia's export revenues could increase by $5-6 billion by the mid-1990s. Russia would begin by exporting its commercial space services.


But even the West's goodwill and accordance of most favored nation status to Russia can't guarantee success. Internal problems could ruin everything. The disastrous state of Baikonur is hardly a good advertisement. For the second year in a row, soldiers on the base have rioted - drunken mobs burning barracks and staff headquarters to the ground.


New construction at Baikonur has stopped since Russia refuses to finance the property of another country; The old construction is caving in to the harsh climate.


The roof of the assembly building where the Russian-French launch was readied is so flimsy that had it rained the water would have poured down onto the waiting spaceship. One wall has settled and seems on the verge of collapse.


Pre-launch, the staffer's main concern was to hide the wall from French journalists and tourists. An hour before blast-off, the electricity went out; Afterwards all of Leninsk was plunged into darkness.


If the leaders of the former Soviet republics are not able to establish political stability and solve their inter-governmental problems, then it is senseless to count on economic cooperation from the West.


Meanwhile, many at the cosmodrome already consider that these leaders are caught up in fruitless political battles at the expense of real concerns. "I'm sure the launch of the space shuttle Buran is more important for Russia's reputation than the referendum", said one veteran worker.


Leninsk mayor Vitaly Brynkin admitted that the local militia had no leads in the murder of the boy on the beach. Hardly surprising since the 320-man force has shrunk to 120 in the last year alone.


At the Baikonur airport I watched as women with babies took a military cargo plane by storm. They didn't care that there was no place to sit. People are leaving Leninsk for good. If Russia and Kazakhstan can't agree on how to revive this dying cosmodrome, both countries will be left on the sidelines of the world economy.


Sergei Leskov writes on science and technology for Izvestia.