Central Asia’s Energy Wars
22, 2010, Erica Marat
Since the winter
energy crisis two years ago, when freezing temperatures lasted for several
weeks, cooperation dynamics within Central
Asia have witnessed rapid change. Upstream
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which rely on electricity imports during winter, were hit
particularly badly as they were unable to supply the population with enough
electricity and gas. Consequently, Tajikistan was forced to declare a humanitarian crisis.
The crisis revealed the poor management of energy resources on the part of
Central Asian governments and their failure to build effective regional energy
cooperation. To make matters worse, last December, Uzbekistan left the regional electricity network that linked all the Central
Asian states (EDM, December 3, 2009). Tashkent’s decision
affected Dushanbe’s ability to
transmit its own electricity through Uzbek territory. While the regional
electricity network was built during the Soviet period, Uzbekistan was able to leave the regional system by constructing its own
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan recently discussed building a joint regional power system as a
trilateral project. Although little is certain at this point, all three states
are clearly mobilizing joint efforts to counter-balance Tashkent’s
unilateralism in the energy sector. Kazakhstan’s Ambassador to Tajikistan, Abdutalip Akhmetov, announced
that the breach in the Central Asian electricity network is “temporary,” thus
hinting that Astana is ready to facilitate more efficient energy cooperation in
the region (Novosti Kazakhstana,
February 11). Furthermore, Dushanbe and Bishkek are discussing the construction of transmission lines
that would bypass Uzbekistan and link Tajikistan with Kazakhstan.
It will take at least five years before Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan make any significant progress in the hydropower sector. Kazakhstan’s support and leadership in increasing the energy independence of
both countries will therefore prove vital for successfully enhancing regional
collaboration. Importantly, similar to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan is able to sustain its domestic energy market without participating
in the Central Asian network. However, Astana chose to lead the collaboration
in the energy sector and demonstrated its support for Tajikistan’s plan to build Rogun hydropower plant.
Meanwhile, Tashkent opposes the construction of new hydropower plants in upstream
countries and uses gas exports as its main instrument to pressure neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Tashkent charges market prices for its gas (up to $200 per thousand cubic
meters) sales to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, forcing them to fall behind in payments. By constructing new dams
upstream, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will reduce their dependence on Uzbek gas. Tashkent, however,
is also concerned that both countries will control water during irrigation
Tajik President, Emomali Rakhmon,
defines the construction of Rogun as a national idea
of all Tajiks (www.regnum.ru,
February 15). At times, the political motives to build the plant dominate at
the expense of economic considerations. Rakhmon has
intensified discussions on Rogun after Uzbekistan exited the regional electricity network. The president forced Tajik
citizens to buy government-issued Rogun shares.
However, reportedly, he was also able to convince some citizens to buy shares
voluntarily (www.asia-plus.tj, February 12).
The success of regional energy collaboration also depends on how the Kyrgyz and
Tajik governments proceed with their plans to construct new plants. Recently, Kyrgyzstan’s major energy company “Severoelektro”
was reportedly privatized by members of the regime. Local political opposition
forces argue that regime loyalists will become the only benefactors from the sector’s
revenues (www.ferghana.ru, February 10). The Kyrgyz
government has promised to expand the hydropower complex by building new
hydropower plants. Yet, the entire construction process remains opaque and it
remains unclear when the plants will be completed.
Meanwhile, both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have exchanged heated comments on Rogun’s
potential damage. Tashkent insists that Rogun will damage the
irrigation system in the region and affect Uzbekistan’s economy, but Tajik experts claim these concerns are exaggerated.
International actors, in turn, prefer to avoid supporting either Tajikistan or Uzbekistan’s stance. A thorough feasibility study of the Rogun
project is needed before Dushanbe can secure any feasible international support.
The indications of growing collaboration between Astana, Bishkek and Dushanbe
demonstrates that Tashkent is becoming more isolated from its Central Asian
neighbors and, which inadvertently forces them to join efforts on energy
issues. Should Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan construct new plants, Uzbekistan will be isolated from the rest of the region, both economically and
politically. Until then, Dushanbe might face additional barriers from Tashkent, including
the transit of construction material for Rogun (www.regnum.ru, February 15). Tajikistan is currently exploring alternative transit routes with Kyrgyzstan.