Kazakhstan officials are denying that a U.S-funded bioweapons lab has been taken over by rebels in the ongoing unrest that broke out last week. Kazakhstan, Russia’s largest neighbouring country, fell into unrest after rioters across the nation took to the streets over skyrocketing fuel prices.
Home to 19 million people, the country gained its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union and remains home to some of the largest oil reserves in the world. Despite producing 1.6 million barrels a day, very little of the wealth has trickled down to much of the nation, which reportedly lives on $3,000 a year.
Under existing laws, it is illegal to protest without a government permit and previous demonstrations have been violently suppressed, including in the town of Zhanaozen, where deadly clashes erupted over 10 years ago and were violently suppressed.
More than 160 people have been killed during the ongoing riots, which has sparked the involvement of its Russian neighbours and other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which dispatched thousands of peacekeepers to secure the country.
Due to its abundance of wealth and proximity to Russia, the United States is undoubtedly interested in making inroads in local policy by investing massive amounts of money into the country.
In 2013, Popular Science magazine reported that the U.S. was constructing a high-tech “bubonic plague” lab in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Innocuously named the Central Reference Laboratory, the $102-million facility was purportedly designed to “serve as a central-Asian way station for a global war on dangerous disease.”
Popular Science reported:
Is it possible, as some Russian critics have alleged, that labs like this could serve as brain trusts and storehouses for weapons research, for either the US or their home countries? “Russia sees this as… a powerful offensive potential,” Gennady Onishchenko, the Chief Sanitary Inspector of Russia–a kind of Surgeon General–told reporters in July.
Washington denies that these reference labs and the secret research at the historic home of American bioweapons, at the US Army base at Fort Detrick, Maryland, have anything to do with offensive weapons, that they meet the standards of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), and that their work will eventually be made public.
Funding for the $103 million construction project in Kazakhstan, and much of the lab’s operations in its early years, will come from the Dept. of Defense, which envisions it as playing a central role in monitoring pathogen outbreaks, a strategy that received new funding after the anthrax attacks in 2001. Last year, the White House announced a program that consolidated these efforts under the banner of “biosurveillance.”
The Daily Mail reports that Russian media highlighted claims that the facility has been compromised by rebels, after all, the airport, mayor's office, and secret service buildings fell into rebel hands during the protests which appeared to be backed by unidentified military forces.
The publication reported:
The secret bio-laboratory funded by the US defense department – which has links to Russian and Chinese scientists – was also compromised in the disturbances, according to social media claims that it was seized.
Official Russian news agency TASS had highlighted alleged social media reports that it was taken over by “unidentified people'” and “specialists in chemical protection suits were working near the lab so a leak of dangerous pathogens could have occurred.”
The laboratory’s existence has been controversial and in 2020 the country formally denied that it was being used to make biological weapons.
“This is not true,” said the health ministry, which is responsible for the Central Reference Laboratory. “The facility is being guarded.”
As detailed by the New York Times, Kazakhstan remains crucial to the United States’ foreign policy concerns due to tens of billions in investments by Exxon Mobil and Chevron in the oil-rich region of western Kazakhstan.