Central Asian States Establish Nuclear-Weapon-Free-Zone Despite US Opposition

Update: September 8, 2006

The foreign ministers of the five Central Asian States–Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan–signed a treaty establishing a Central Asian Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (CANWFZ) on September 8, 2006. The signing of the treaty went forward despite objections by the United States, Great Britain, and France. The new zone joins four others covering Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Africa. To a greater extent than the previous zones, the one in Central Asia will showcase a commitment to nuclear disarmament by a group of states which previously had nuclear weapons on their territory and continue to live in a nuclear-armed neighborhood. Surrounded by Russian, Chinese, Pakistani, Indian, and Israeli nuclear weapons, and housing Russian and US military bases, the new zone will serve as a powerful example of nonproliferation–an important antidote and positive counter-example to Iranian and North Korean nuclear brinkmanship. At the signing ceremony, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kasymoshomart Tokayev underlined the symbolic significance of the new zone, stating: “The countries of our region declared a firm commitment to the principles of disarmament and nonproliferation. This is our contribution to ensuring global security.”

The CNS Research Story presented below analyzes the development of the CANWFZ treaty, the opposition to it, and the implications of the newly established zone.

Scott Parrish
William Potter
September 5, 2006

The five former Soviet Central Asian republics–Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan–have announced that they will sign a treaty establishing a Central Asian nuclear-weapon-free zone (CANWFZ) on September 8, 2006. The treaty will create the world’s fifth nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ), alongside those in Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Africa. The result of negotiations that began in 1997, the CANWFZ treaty text was finalized at talks held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in February 2005. Reflecting the strategic importance of Central Asia, the eight-year process of negotiating the treaty has been heavily influenced by the nuclear weapons states, especially the United States and Russia. And while a date for the signing ceremony has been announced, continued opposition from the United States, United Kingdom, and France may yet derail the CANWFZ treaty. The United States is even pressuring the United Nations and other international bodies to withhold their support of the treaty.

At a time when existing nonproliferation regimes are under great stress, failure to conclude the CANWFZ treaty would be most unfortunate. While some hard-nosed critics might deride the treaty as nothing but a paper accord, the political importance of the new zone should not be underestimated. To a greater extent than the previous NWFZ, the one in Central Asia will showcase a commitment to nuclear disarmament by a group of states which previously had nuclear weapons on their territory and continue to live in a nuclear-armed neighborhood. Surrounded by Russian, Chinese, Pakistani, Indian, and Israeli nuclear weapons, and housing Russian and US military bases, the new zone will serve as a powerful example of nonproliferation–an important antidote and positive counter-example to Iranian and North Korean nuclear brinkmanship. It will also be the first NWFZ located entirely in the northern hemisphere.

Beyond its political impact, the Central Asian treaty contains concrete provisions that strengthen regional and international nonproliferation efforts. Under its terms, the Central Asian states will be the first countries in the world legally bound to adhere to enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards (known as the Additional Protocol),on their civilian nuclear assets. The treaty also requires them to meet international standards for the physical protection of nuclear material. Considering the danger that Central Asia could become a source or transit corridor for terrorist smuggling of nuclear materials, these terms of the CANWFZ are an important counterterrorism measure. In a unique feature, the treaty also recognizes the environmental damage done to Central Asia by the Soviet nuclear weapons program and pledges to support environmental rehabilitation. While some critics contend that the treaty is flawed because it allows the continuation of existing security arrangements involving Russia, on balance the benefits of the CANWFZ treaty outweigh its shortcomings, and if concluded the treaty will represent a victory for nonproliferation at a time when events in North Korea, Iran, and South Asia have provided little positive news for nonproliferation advocates.

The Origins and Development of the CANWFZ Concept, 1992-1998

Despite the opposition of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France to the draft treaty, many other countries support the initiative to establish a CANWFZ. This support, apparent at numerous meetings of the United Nations General Assembly and during the review process of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), reflects the widespread support in the international community for NWFZs. Since the first NWFZ proposal in 1956, four NWFZs have been established in populated areas of the world, and NWFZs now cover nearly the entire inhabited area of the southern hemisphere, with over 100 member states. Additional treaties ban nuclear weapons from outer space and the seabed.[1] NWFZs are widely viewed as both nonproliferation and disarmament measures. On the one hand, NWFZs aim to prevent the emergence of new nuclear weapon states by addressing regional security concerns. On the other hand, the slow expansion of NWFZs across the globe represents a step toward the ultimate abolition of nuclear weapons.

The idea of a CANWFZ traces its roots back to the 1992 initiative by Mongolia declaring itself a NWFZ, in which Mongolia also called for a regional NWFZ.[2] Uzbek President Islam Karimov later made a formal proposal for a CANWFZ at the 48th session of the UN General Assembly in 1993. In 1994, at the 49th session of the UN General Assembly, Kyrgyzstan voiced support for the establishment of a CANWFZ [3], and in 1995 joined with Uzbekistan in proposing the creation of a CANWFZ at the NPT Review and Extension Conference.[4] At the 51st session of the U.N. General Assembly in October 1996, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia also submitted a draft resolution on the issue, although it was subsequently withdrawn when it did not receive the support of the other states in the region.[5]

The crucial step in the process of moving the CANWFZ from an abstract proposal to a concrete policy initiative was taken on February 27, 1997, when the five presidents of the Central Asian states issued the Almaty Declaration endorsing the creation of a CANWFZ.[6] The declaration specifically placed the establishment of the CANWFZ in the context of the environmental challenges faced by all five Central Asian states. Each of these states housed parts of the former Soviet nuclear infrastructure, and they now confront common problems of environmental damage resulting from the production and testing of Soviet nuclear weapons.[7]

At the 52nd session of the UN General Assembly, held in fall 1997, the five Central Asian states jointly submitted a draft resolution endorsing the CANWFZ initiative. Central Asian diplomats were initially uncertain how the nuclear powers would react to this draft resolution, especially since the proposed CANWFZ would border on Russia and China. The United States, Russia, China, France, and United Kingdom, however, endorsed the resolution after the Central Asian states agreed to accept several amendments to its original text. The amended resolution was then adopted by consensus on November 10, 1997 by the First Main Committee of the General Assembly, and later endorsed by the full General Assembly on December 9, 1997.[8] A similar resolution endorsing the CANWFZ concept was adopted by the 55th session of UN General Assembly in fall 2000.[9]

Following this endorsement by the international community, the Central Asian states, with the assistance of the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and financial support from Japan, made rapid progress in drafting a CANWFZ treaty. At a meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in July 1998, Central Asian experts discussed the basic principles of the proposed CANWFZ with representatives of the nuclear weapon states.[10] Nevertheless, several significant points of disagreement among the Central Asian states remained, halting progress by mid-2000.[11]

The Stumbling Blocks and their Resolution, 1998-2002

The differences which threatened to block the treaty were fuelled by continuing regional rivalry among the five Central Asian states and different approaches to relations with Russia, the leading regional power. While Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan had retained fairly close ties to Russia, including on security issues, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan had taken a much more independent stance.

The two principal stumbling blocks that emerged were:

  1. how the CANWFZ treaty would treat the possible transit of nuclear weapons through the CANWFZ; and
  2. the relationship of the CANWFZ treaty to previous international agreements, especially security treaties involving some of the Central Asian states.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan argued for permissive provisions regarding transit and preserving existing security arrangements, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan favored more restrictions on both transit and security arrangements.

These disputes reflected different views about the importance to attach to Russian interests and perspectives. For its part, Russia did not seem to take the CANWFZ initiative seriously in 1997 and 1998, and Russian diplomats voiced support for the zone in principle, perhaps doubting that it would succeed.[12] This stance changed after April 1999, when the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo prompted Russia to place greater emphasis on the role of nuclear weapons in its national security strategy and the need to maintain maximum flexibility regarding weapons deployments.[13] It was at about this time that Kazakhstan stiffened its position in the negotiations on the two disputed issues.

Kazakhstan argued that the treaty should allow each party independently to resolve issues related to transit of nuclear weapons through its territory by air, land, or water. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan sought to have more restrictive language placed in the treaty, with Turkmenistan taking an especially hard line on this issue.

Existing security arrangements also divided the Central Asian states, as they debated the relationship of the CANWFZ to other international agreements. The 1992 Tashkent Collective Security Treaty, to which Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan had originally been parties, served as a focal point for this debate.[14] Russia has never publicly indicated how it interprets Article IV of the Tashkent Treaty, which states that signatories will render each other “all necessary assistance, including military assistance,” in response to aggression.[15] On occasion, however, Russian diplomats have signaled to their Central Asian counterparts a preference for a broad interpretation, which the United States, France, and the United Kingdom assume includes nuclear weapons.[16] Taking this Russian position into consideration during the CANWFZ negotiations, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan proposed that the CANWFZ treaty explicitly state that its provisions do not affect obligations under existing treaties and agreements. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, however, which were not parties to the Tashkent Treaty during these negotiations in 1999-2002, refused to accept this language. Turkmenistan had never signed the Tashkent Treaty, while Uzbekistan had let its membership expire in 1999. Uzbekistan later rejoined the treaty, attending a June 2006 meeting of treaty members in Moscow.

Breakthrough in 2002

While these disagreements stymied finalizing the CANWFZ treaty for several years, by mid-2002 several factors shifted, enabling their resolution. First, the geopolitical balance in the region changed dramatically following the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. The United States became much more active in Central Asia, deploying military forces at bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in support of its ongoing operations in Afghanistan. Russia accepted this increased US role in the region, and in turn the Central Asian states became less dependent on Russia and less subject to Russian pressure. Second, the new prominence of Central Asia as the “front line” in the struggle against terrorism transformed the CANWFZ concept from an abstract idea with only limited practical application to a concrete mechanism that could help prevent the introduction of nuclear weapons into the region and reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism.

In addition to these geopolitical changes, a successful visit to the five Central Asian states in August 2002 by then-UN Under Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala helped jump-start the negotiations. Dhanapala’s meetings with all five Central Asian foreign ministers and presidents of three of the Central Asian states gave a new impetus to efforts to find a compromise resolution to the disputed issues. Also helpful was a well-timed Uzbek proposal that the signing ceremony for the CANWFZ treaty be held at the former Soviet nuclear test site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. This proposal, which suggested that the CANWFZ treaty, following past precedent, would be known as the Semipalatinsk Treaty, gave Kazakhstan an additional motivation for concluding the agreement.

As a result, the five Central Asian states agreed at Samarkand, Uzbekistan in September 2002 on compromise wording of the articles in the CANWFZ treaty dealing with the previously disputed issues of transit and other international agreements, clearing the way for its signature.

P-3 Objections Renew Impasse, 2002-2005

Hoping to gain the endorsement of the nuclear weapon states, the Central Asian states sent the text of their draft treaty to the P-5 for comment. One of the principal security benefits that NWFZ provide to their signatories is a negative security assurance from the nuclear weapon states (a promise not to attack or threaten to attack NWFZ signatories with nuclear weapons). NWFZ treaties traditionally contain a protocol that is open for signature by the nuclear weapon states, in which those states provide such negative security assurances. Asking the nuclear weapon states to comment on the draft treaty continued the consultation process the Central Asian states had launched in 1998, when the nuclear weapon states were invited to participate in the Bishkek meeting.

In principle, the nuclear weapon states support the creation of new NWFZs, including the CANWFZ. However, in practice, they have refused to sign the protocols to some past NWFZ treaties, citing specific objections. Because its terms can be interpreted as interfering with freedom of the seas, for example, none of the nuclear weapon states have signed the protocol to the Treaty of Bangkok, which established the Southeast Asian NWFZ. Mindful of this experience, the Central Asian states had opened consultations with the nuclear weapon states in 1998, and continued these discussions in 2002 after completing their draft treaty.

New difficulties soon arose in these consultations. To reach agreement among themselves on the disputed issues of transit and existing security arrangements, the Central Asian states had adopted ambiguous language that addressed Russian concerns, but raised questions from the United States, United Kingdom, and France. While Russia and China quickly expressed their approval of the 2002 draft CANWFZ treaty, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France reportedly sent written comments to the Central Asian states criticizing several provisions of the draft treaty, and indicating that they would not be able to sign the protocol unless changes were made.

The United States, the United Kingdom, and France expressed the strongest concern about the article regarding previous international agreements. That article had two clauses: one which stated that the CANWFZ Treaty would not affect the rights and obligations of the signatories under previous international agreements (thus apparently allowing the continued operation of the Tashkent Collective Security Treaty), and another that said the parties agreed not to take any action that would undermine the fundamental purpose of the treaty (apparently ruling out redeployment of nuclear weapons in the zone). The United States indicated that it could not support this article as drafted, since the two clauses appeared to contradict one another. The State Department also complained that this article did not clearly spell out what previous international agreements were involved, leaving countries signing the protocol unclear about what obligations they were undertaking. The United States and its allies recommended that this article be deleted from the treaty. The Central Asian states, however, were disinclined to accept this suggestion, as it would have undermined Russian support for the treaty.

Although one can raise legitimate objections to the ambiguous language in the treaty, the US objection is undermined by its own long-time insistence that NWFZs be consistent with seven principles in order to obtain US support. One of these principles states that:

The establishment of the zone should not disturb existing security arrangements to the detriment of regional and international security or otherwise abridge the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense guaranteed in the UN charter.

If applied universally, this principle would appear to endorse the continued operation of the Tashkent Treaty. However, the United States seems to apply this principle only to security arrangements it supports, and not to those involving other countries, such as Russia.

The United States also objected to a provision in the draft treaty which provided for the possible expansion of the CANWFZ to neighboring states. The draft treaty stated that neighboring states could apply to join the zone. The United States argued that the zone of application of the treaty should be well-defined, and not open-ended, as this provision suggested. This US concern was probably motivated by concerns about Iran. Iran borders on Turkmenistan, and could thus apply to join the CANWFZ in the future, possibly further complicating ongoing US-led efforts to constrain Iran’s nuclear program.

Another objection expressed by the United States, United Kingdom, and France relates to the provisions of the treaty governing the possible transit of nuclear weapons through the zone. In one article, the treaty provides that each member state remains free to decide for itself whether or not to allow transit of nuclear weapons through its territory. In another article, however, the treaty prohibits its members states from having “possession or control” of nuclear weapons, or encouraging or assisting the possession or control of nuclear weapons. This article could be interpreted as prohibiting transit. The United States, the United Kingdom, and France have accordingly suggested small changes that would remove this potential conflict and unambiguously permit each CANWFZ member state to allow nuclear weapons to transit its territory.

In contrast to the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, Russia and China did not raise any substantive concerns with the text of the treaty. China had indicated its support in principle earlier, and is apparently not concerned with the details of the treaty. As discussed above, Russian concerns had already been addressed in the Samarkand draft.

The US-led objections placed the Central Asian states in a difficult political quandary, especially in the post-9/11 era, in which both the United States and Russia were actively engaged in the region. If the Central Asian states did not modify the draft treaty, the United States and its allies threatened not to sign the protocol. On the other hand, if they changed the text at US suggestion, Russia could be expected to reverse its position and refuse to support the treaty.

Faced with this dilemma, the Central Asian states considered their options for over two years before revising the draft treaty in February 2005 at a meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The revised draft treaty that emerged from the Tashkent meeting contained only a few changes compared to the September 2002 text. While the 2005 draft addresses US concern about future expansion of the zone, it does not address the US objections to the provisions regarding existing international agreements or transit.

The Tashkent meeting produced three principal changes to the draft CANWFZ. First, the revised draft allows the import of low- and medium-level radioactive waste into the CANWFZ, as long as the imports are managed in accordance with IAEA standards. The previous draft had prohibited all imports of radioactive waste. This change was made at the request of Kazakhstan, which is considering the commercial import of low- and medium-level radioactive waste for long-term storage. A second change is that the revised treaty does not specifically provide for neighboring states to join the CANWFZ, as did the original draft. Third, the new draft treaty establishes Kyrgyzstan as the depositary state for the treaty. The previous draft had provided that the United Nations would serve as the depositary. This last change is a political gesture, intended to recognize the role that Kyrgyzstan played in negotiating the treaty. The other provisions of the draft treaty remain largely intact.

At the Tashkent meeting, the five Central Asian states declared their intention to sign the revised draft treaty “as soon as possible.”[17] They also formally declared that the treaty signing ceremony would be held in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.[18] The outcome of the Tashkent meeting appeared to signal that the Central Asian states were prepared to sign the CANWFZ treaty without the support of the United States or its allies, since the revised draft treaty clearly did not address the primary US complaint regarding the relationship of the CANWFZ to existing international agreements.

US and Allies Campaign to Block CANWFZ, 2005-2006

Despite their rhetorical support of NWFZs in principle, the nuclear weapon states rarely have been enthusiastic about a specific NWFZ. That view is apparent in the opposition of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom to the current draft of the CANWFZ treaty. Repeatedly since spring 2005–when it appeared as though the Central Asian states might sign the treaty in the summer or fall of that year–the three nuclear weapon states have sent demarches to the Central Asian states and the leadership of the United Nations in which they made clear that they would not support the protocol unless the treaty was modified to meet their concerns. This point was reiterated at the 2005 NPT Review Conference, and again was communicated to the Central Asian states in a demarche in November 2005. More recently, in August 2006, the United States and its two allies reportedly have sought to enlist UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in efforts to dissuade the Central Asian states from signing the treaty, and have pressured senior officials at the United Nations and other international organizations not to attend the treaty signing ceremony if it takes place. At the time of this writing, it is unclear if the US-led initiative to block the CANWFZ signing will succeed.


Current US, UK, and French efforts to block the signing of the CANWFZ are misguided. Although the current draft treaty–like most treaties–is imperfect and reflects compromises, it is disingenuous for the United States and its two nuclear weapons allies to demand changes now when they might have provided suggestions for improvements long before the text was finalized. Moreover, it is hypocritical for US officials to insist upon changes in language that it finds objectionable if, as some US negotiators have acknowledged, the Bush administration would be disinclined to support the new treaty even if the Central Asian states accepted all of their proposed revisions. In addition, as the UN guidelines for nuclear-weapon-free zones make clear, it is up to the states in the region to decide on the terms governing the zone; it is the prerogative of the nuclear weapon states to choose whether or not to offer further assurances to its members in the form of protocols to the NWFZ treaty.

Rather than trying to block the conclusion of the zone, the leaders of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom–along with the UN Secretary General–should welcome the new nonproliferation agreement and encourage countries in other troubled regions to follow suit. The United States and its allies need the active cooperation of the states in Central Asia to help stem the tide of proliferation in surrounding areas. For their part, the Central Asian states could go a long way in reducing the legitimate concerns about ambiguous language in the treaty by taking a page from President Bush’s political playbook, and issuing a “signing statement” on September 8 to the effect that they interpret the treaty as banning any re-deployment of nuclear weapons in their region. In this regard, Russia also should exercise responsible nonproliferation leadership and issue a parallel statement voluntarily committing itself not to deploy nuclear weapons in Central Asia.

[1] For a discussion of the development of the NWFZ concept and the negotiations that produced the existing NWFZ treaties, see Jozef Goldblat, “Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zones: A History and Assessment,” Nonproliferation Review 4 (Spring-Summer 1997), pp. 18-31, and Jan Prawitz, “Existing NWFZs: History and Principles,” Paper Presented at the International Seminar Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones: Crucial Steps Towards A Nuclear-Free World, Uppsala, Sweden, September 1-4, 2000.
[2] For more information on the Mongolian initiative, see Tariq Rauf, “Mongolia’s International Security and Nuclear-Weapon-Free Status,”CANCAPS Bulletin/Bulletin de CONCSAP No. 27 (November 2000), www.iir.ubc.ca.
[3] “Foreign Ministry Protests PRC Nuclear Test,” Slovo Kyrgyzstana (Bishkek), October 21, 1994, p. 1, in FBIS-SOV-94-212; and “Foreign Minister on International Relations,” Interfax, November 28, 1994, in FBIS-SOV-94-229.
[4] 1995 Review and Extension Conference of Parties to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, “Report of Main Committee II,” NPT/CONF.1995/MC.II/1,5, May 5, 1995, in International Atomic Energy Agency, INFCIRC/474.
[5] “Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia: Draft Resolution on the Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in the Central Asian Region,” United Nations General Assembly, 51st Session, Draft Resolution A/C.1/51/L.29, October 29, 1996.
[6]”Text of Almaty Declaration on Aral Sea Pollution,” Narodnoye slovo (Tashkent), March 4, 1997, in FBIS Document FTS19970530002474.
[7] Largely because it does not share a common border with the former Soviet Central Asian states, Mongolia has not been included in the CANWFZ initiative, even though the Central Asian states generally support Mongolia’s nuclear weapon-free status, and they acknowledge that they have drawn inspiration from Mongolia’s example.
[8] “Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia,” United Nations General Assembly, 51st Session, Resolution 52/38 S, December 7, 1997.
[9] United Nations General Assembly, 55th Session, A/RES/55/33W, “Establishment of a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia,” November 20, 2000.
[10] “Central Asian Foreign Ministers Meet on Nuclear-Free Zone,” Interfax, July 9, 1998, in FBIS Document FTS19980709000486.
[11] Scott Parrish, “Prospects for a Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia,” Nonproliferation Review 8 (Spring 2001), pp. 141-148.
[12] See for example, “Moscow Welcomes Karimov’s Initiative on Nuclear Weapons,” Interfax, September 16, 1997; in FBIS Document FTS19970916000227; “Central Asian Foreign Ministers Meet on Nuclear-Free Zone,” Interfax, July 9, 1998; in FBIS Document FTS19980709000486.
[13] For a discussion of this issue, see Nikolai Sokov, “Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine: The End Of The Period Of Transition?” paper presented at Presentation at a UN Symposium on Nuclear Doctrines, New York, October 18, 1999.
[14] Turkmenistan had never signed the treaty. In 1999, as part of a strategic reorientation away from Russia, Uzbekistan did not renew its participation in the Tashkent Treaty, effectively withdrawing from it. However, in 2006 it reactivated its membership. See Vladimir Socor, “Uzbakistan Accedes to Collective Security Treaty,” Eurasia Daily Monitor (June 27, 2006).
[15] See “CIS Collective Security Treaty,” Rossiyskaya gazeta (May 23, 1992).
[16] Interviews by the authors with diplomats from Russia and Central Asia during the 1999 NPT Preparatory Committee Meeting, New York.
[17] “Tashkentskoye zayavleniye predstaviteley Tsentralno-Aziatskikh gosudarstv po sozdaniyu zony, svobodnoy ot yadernogo oruzhiya v Tsentralnoy Azii” [Tashkent Declaration by Representatives of the Central Asian states on the Establishment of a Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone], ITAR-TASS, February 9, 2005.
[18] “Dogovor o bezyadernoy zone v Tsentralnoy Azii budet podpisan v Semipalatinske” [Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty Will be Signed in Semipalatinsk], ITAR-TASS, February 10, 2005.

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