Why Kazakhstan Is Front and Center at the Global Nuclear Security Summit

Semey, Kazakhstan - Praskoviya Koloskova is 85 now, a widow living in a retirement home in this forlorn city on the vast windswept steppes of northeast Kazakhstan that was formerly known as Semipalatinsk, and she admits that her memory sometimes fails her.

But she has no problem remembering what she witnessed 57 years ago, on the morning of August 12, 1953, when the Soviet Union detonated its first thermonuclear bomb at the Soviet Union's main test site for atomic bombs some 90 miles to the west.

"Usually, before a test, they recommended that we open our windows and doors and wait outside of our house," she said, referring to the warnings the local citizenry received when Soviet scientists began testing atomic bombs four years earlier in a frantic effort to catch up with the United States.

"But this was different," she said through an interpreter. "I felt the [pressure] wave and then it was like a cup with smoke and tongues of fire, and after that, the fire was going up and I saw the mushroom and then breathed the air, which was full of ash. It seemed like it was only a hundred meters away."

Mrs. Koloskova's husband, a carpenter, was at work and their three sons, who were in school, also witnessed the blast, only the fifth of 456 nuclear devices -- ll3 of them above ground or atmospheric -- detonated at the Semipalatinsk test site between 1949 and 1989. It was a relatively small explosion, 400 kilotons, but it paved the way for first true Soviet hydrogen super bomb, a 1.6 megaton monster, two years later.

The radioactive fallout from all the above ground and atmospheric tests left Mrs. Koloskova with health problems and occasional nightmares. "I don't know what happened with me, but from that moment, I felt headaches and nervous disorders, and I imagined it many times," she said.

But she was one of the lucky ones. Still vigorous and able to walk with aid of a cane, she was not afflicted with any of the horrific tumors or the radiation-caused genetic mutilations and birth defects that affected many residents of Semey and other settlements near the 7,000-square-mile test site known as the Polygon, Russian for "firing range."

Her story, and those of thousands of others like her, is the reason why Kazakhstan, a Central Asia country unknown to most Americans, is standing front and center among the 47 nations represented at the two-day Global Nuclear Security Summit beginning Monday in Washington.

Indeed, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev was the second foreign leader, after India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that President Obama met with the day before the conference opened. Obama praised Nazarbayev, the former head of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan who was elected president when Kazakhstan became the last of the former Soviet republics to declare independence in 1991, as "one of the model leaders in the world. He added, "We could not have this summit without his presence."

Obama's words of praise reflected the fact that even though Kazakhstan is hardly a shining example of democracy - Kazakhstan's parliament made Nazarbayev de facto president for life in 2007 with veto powers over any legislation and immunity from criminal prosecution - he was the first foreign leader to renounce the possession and use of nuclear weapons.

On August 29, 1991, four months before the Soviet Union collapsed and 38 years after Mrs. Koloskova witnessed the Soviets' first thermonuclear explosion, Nazarbayev shut down the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site.

And in 1995, after his country inherited the world's fourth largest nuclear arsenal, he declared that Kazakhstan was a nuclear free country and returned 40 heavy bombers and more than 1,400 nuclear warheads for intercontinental and intermediate range missiles to Russia for destruction. He later destroyed 148 ICBM silos across Kazakhstan and underground test tunnels at Semipalatinsk, as part of the Nunn-Lugar Program.

At the same time, he approved a secret joint operation with the U.S. code named Project Sapphire, which removed 1,278 pounds of highly enriched uranium to the U.S..

Obama's warm words for Nazarbayev also reflected the geopolitical realities of the 21st century. Kazakhstan, a country larger than all of western Europe with only 16 million people, is sandwiched between Russia and China, and borders on Kyrgyzstan, where recent uprisings threaten the status of a major U.S. air base supporting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Kazakhstan also has the Caspian Sea region's largest recoverable oil and gas reserves as well as the world's second largest deposits of uranium.

And it is flexing its diplomatic muscles as it became in January the first predominantly Muslim nation and the first former Soviet Union state to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Few Americans may have heard of it or even know where it is, but Kazakhstan appears ready to awaken from its role as the sleeping giant of Central Asia.