WASHINGTON -- The former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, yielding to U.S. and Russian pressure, announced yesterday that it will join the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear power.
The move clears a major hurdle blocking ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which slashes long-range atomic weapons arsenals in the United States and the former Soviet Union.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III may now be in a position to get Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus to sign a protocol to the treaty next weekend in Lisbon, Portugal, and then send it to the Senate for ratification hearings.
The announcement came on the eve of Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev's expected arrival today in Washington. His previous stance had threatened to cloud the atmosphere of his meeting tomorrow with President Bush.
When the Soviet empire collapsed, its republics inherited START, signed last year by the United States and the Soviet Union.
Kazakhstan, a multi-ethnic Central Asian nation on the border with China, had been the last holdout among the former republics on implementing START. In recent months, Mr. Nazarbayev also had backed off his previous commitment to Mr. Baker that Kazakhstan would become a non-nuclear signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He said his country instead should be considered a temporary nuclear power.
Without a Kazakhstan policy change, the chances were unlikely for Senate ratification of START, or for the opportunity to build on it with deeper cuts.
Kazakhstan's shift came in a Foreign Ministry statement, relayed to Western news organizations in Moscow by the Itar-Tass agency, saying that signing of a defense pact at last week's CIS summit created the conditions for Kazakhstan to sign the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty.
"The prerequisites have been created for Kazakhstan to join the worldwide Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear .
state," said its statement, according to Reuters.
A U.S. official called the reported statement "very good" and said it opened the possibility that a protocol to the START treaty, a major preoccupation of Mr. Baker's in recent weeks, "could be wrapped up." While cautioning that "we still have to read the fine print," the official said, "We hope they find the rest of the [START] package acceptable."
The treaty must now be ratified by the U.S. Senate and by the parliaments of the three Soviet nuclear republics. U.S. officials hope Mr. Baker can get the republics to sign on to a preratification protocol when he travels to Lisbon for the second international conference on aid to the former Soviet republics.
The arsenal in Kazakhstan includes 104 SS-18 missiles, with 10 warheads each, which are capable of hitting targets in the United States, and 40 strategic bombers capable of delivering a total of 370 warheads.
Mr. Nazarbayev doesn't control these weapons, which remain under centralized, Moscow-based command. But he has tried to use their destabilizing presence in his country to extract security guarantees and economic concessions from the West.
He has voiced concern about having two nuclear powers, Russia and China, on his country's borders. He has raised what U.S. officials consider a spurious argument that Kazakhstan should be included in the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a temporary nuclear-armed state.
Mr. Nazarbayev, who reportedly prides himself on being a skilled negotiator, also wants to tap the economic potential of the missile and rocket test site at Baikonur, inside Kazakhstan.
"He's seeing how much the traffic will bear," a U.S. official said last week, before Kazakhstan's shift in position was announced.
Dunbar Lockwood of the Washington-based Arms Control Association voiced a widely held concern last week as the Nazarbayev visit approached:
"If Nazarbayev does not agree to cooperate, it could undermine prospects for START ratification this year and would also weaken the international non-proliferation regime," he said. "It would also sidetrack efforts for deeper reductions beyond START."
Americans told Mr. Nazarbayev that the best assurance of his country's future security would be an improved relationship with the West, a relationship that could be jeopardized by his refusal to cooperate.
Last week's CIS defense pact, signed by six members including Russia and Kazakhstan, committed each to come to the others' assistance in the event of an attack.
Yesterday's Foreign Ministry statement said that it created "a qualitatively new situation in the sphere of Kazakhstan's national security."
It added: "Kazakhstan has received assurances from the United States that immediate actions would be performed to render help if Kazakhstan finds itself a target of aggression or threats."
The United States has publicly pledged that if a non-nuclear former Soviet state is threatened by a nuclear power, the matter would be taken up by the United Nations Security Council.
Mr. Nazarbayev's visit to Washington, like the recent one by Ukrainian President Leonid M. Kravchuk, is intended to show the potential benefits to Kazakhstan of good relations with the United States. While officials here have hesitated to make firm commitments to Mr. Nazarbayev in advance, he is likely to get a range of technical assistance as well as treaties on investment and taxes and most-favored-nation trade treatment.