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Gas Guarantees Tashkent Political Leverage

Uzbekistan's neighbours are seeking alternative energy sources in an effort to escape dependence on Tashkent
By IWPR Central Asia

Vast supplies of natural gas - valued at more than $1 trillion - have become Uzbekistan's most persuasive weapon in its bid for regional hegemony.

Of the 55 billion cubic metres of gas produced annually, the former Soviet republic exports 15 per cent to Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as Russia and Ukraine. In 2000 alone, Uzbekistan earned $309 million from natural gas contracts.

But these exports are far more than a source of revenue for the Uzbek economy - they enable Tashkent to make huge political demands on its Central Asian dependents and broker economic deals to its advantage.

Last autumn, Uzbekistan agreed to deliver 850 million cubic metres of gas to Southern Kazakstan at a cost of $40 per 1,000 cubic metres. In return for this preferential rate, the Kazak authorities reconnected the telephone lines between the two countries which had been cut off six months previously because of Uzbekistan's $4 million debt to Kaztelecom.

Furthermore, Astana gave Uzbek trains permission to pass through Kazak territory, despite Tashkent's outstanding debts of $2 million for rail transit.

The supply of gas to Kyrgyzstan is also fraught with complications. According to an agreement signed at the end of 2000, Uzbekistan has pledged to supply Kyrgyzstan with 1.2 billion cubic metres of gas over the coming year. The rate per 1,000 cubic metres has been fixed at $42.

But, just as the winter frosts set in, the gas supply was unexpectedly suspended, prompting widespread suspicions in Kyrgyzstan that the development had a political subtext.

Representatives from Uzbekneftegaz blamed a fault in the pipeline and argued that Uzbekistan had no reason to cut off a valuable source of hard currency. But Kyrygz politicians pointed to a statement made by deputy prime minister Rustam Yunusov during a January visit to the Osh oblast. Yunusov said that Uzbekistan expected to receive territorial concessions from Kyrgyzstan in return for the gas supply.

These territorial concessions concern a tract of land linking the Uzbek enclave of Sokh with Uzbekistan and an adjoining area of 11,000 hectares.

Starved of its gas supply and facing an energy crisis, Kyrgyzstan increased the production of hydroelectric power at the Tokhtogulsky reservoir. The resulting drop in water levels could have a serious effect on spring planting in Uzbekistan where fields are irrigated from the Kyrgyz reserves.

This development prompted an urgent visit by Uzbek prime minister Utkir Sultanov to Bishkek. Here he stated categorically that Uzbekistan had no ambitions to annex Kyrgyz territory and any territorial disputes would be resolved in accordance with international law.

Sultanov repeated claims that the interruption in the gas supply was caused by technical faults in the Gazli region and, according to the Kyrgyz embassy in Uzbekistan, deliveries have since been resumed in full.

However, the perennial problems experienced by Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan over gas supplies have caused both republics to consider alternative energy sources - a move which would trigger major changes on the Central Asian geopolitical map.

In the meantime, Kyrgyzstan has promised to supply Uzbekistan with the agreed volume of irrigation water over the coming summer - despite the fact that this could seriously reduce Kyrgyzstan's capacity for producing hydroelectric energy in the near future.

Shavkat Alimov is a regular IWPR contributor

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