Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Concerned by Uzbek Gas Cuts

Uzbekistan is so angry at Kyrgyz failure to send back Andijan refugees that it derails a contract to supply essential fuel to its neighbour.
By Leila Saralaeva

In a classic example of how economics in Central Asia is often the continuation of politics by other means, the Uzbek government has vented its anger at its Kyrgyz neighbours’ behaviour over the Andijan violence by stopping them from buying its gas.


But although Kyrgyzstan now faces the very real threat of energy shortages in the approaching winter, its rulers look unlikely to back down on their refusal to send back refugees who fled from Andijan in May, after security forces there shot into a crowd of demonstrators, reportedly killing hundreds. Apart from international pressure, the Kyrgyz administration may also be prompted by the knowledge that it can always buy gas from Kazakstan, and it also has some leverage of its own, in the shape of water resources.


Kubanychbek Jusupov, the first deputy director-general of the national gas firm, Kyrgyzgaz, told IWPR that the contract for the next year’s supplies had already been signed by the Uzbeks when there was a sudden and unexplained upset.


After the July signing, the contract between Kyrgyzgaz and Uzbektransgaz, Uzbekistan’s state gas distribution firm, failed to be granted certification by the Uzbek agency for foreign economic relations, which should have been a mere formality since the deal is part of a longstanding arrangement. “Accordingly, it does not have any legal force,” explained Jusupov. “Uzbekistan is not giving any official explanation for this situation.”


That means that there is no global agreement in place to cover the 12-month period from this August, during which Uzbekistan would usually provide 700 to 800 million cubic metres of gas, accounting for the bulk of the country’s total consumption of the fuel.


The Uzbeks have, however, consented to continue piping some gas to the southern half of Kyrgyzstan until the end of this year, but in greatly reduced volumes. That leaves the much more industrialised north of the country facing a real fuel crisis.


“Kyrgyzstan is completely dependent on deliveries of gas from other countries,” said Jusupov, noting that Kazakstan as well as Uzbekistan is a supplier.


The consequences could be dire. According to Tairbek Sarpashev, a member of the Kyrgyz parliament who used to head its committee on energy resources, “Kyrgyzstan now faces the prospect of being left without gas this winter…. As soon as the gas is turned off, there will be a corresponding increase in electricity consumption, and the substations won’t be able to cope, so regional blackouts are inevitable.


“If there is no gas, I can’t imagine how we will survive.”


Kyrgyz gas officials are in little doubt why what should have been an unexceptional contract renewal process has fallen apart, at least for the moment


“We believe it has to do with our evacuation of the Uzbek refugees,” said Jusupov.


He was referring to 439 Uzbek nationals whom the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees flew to Romania on July 29, with the intention of resettling them permanently in third countries.


The Uzbek authorities were seeking the repatriation of the group, who had lived in a temporary camp on the Kyrgyz border since fleeing from Andijan.


But they were pre-empted by the UNHCR, which took the view that “any attempt to send [the refugees] back to territories where their life or freedom would be threatened would be a violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention.”


As a signatory to the convention, the Kyrgyz government – which had only recently come to power as a result of the March revolution in Bishkek - made it clear it had no option but to comply.


Uzbek officials were incensed, decrying the UNHCR’s action as “unwarranted interference” and saying that since refugee group posed no security threat they should not have been moved from where they were. The Kyrgyz authorities are likely to have further angered their neighbour with their recent promise that 15 refugees currently in custody at a detention centre in Osh will not be forcibly deported to Uzbekistan. Uzbek officials insist that at least some of these people are wanted terrorists and that it was they, not the security forces, who caused the violence in Andijan. “This situation is connected with the principled position that Kyrgyzstan has taken to fulfilling the international obligations it has assumed,” said Tursunbek Akunov, who chairs the Kyrgyz presidential committee for human rights. “Their [Uzbekistan’s] actions are wrong, and show how short-sighted [President Islam] Karimov’s policies are towards a near neighbour and a fraternal nation.”


Political analyst Nur Omarov says the Uzbeks’ use of gas to gain political leverage is contrary to the spirit of a range of regional and bilateral agreements under which Central Asian states are supposed to behave in a friendly and cooperative manner with one another.


“The Uzbeks have no other channels of influence on Kyrgyzstan, so they have resorted to this petty form of revenge,” he said. “Kyrgyzstan is in a very difficult situation, and is being buffeted on all sides – by Uzbekistan and the international community.”


While the immediate reason for the current crisis is clear, it is only the latest turn in a long and fraught history in which the Uzbeks have used gas as a political instrument against resource-poor neighbours.


“Our relations with Uzbekistan have always been not so much economic as political,” said Sarpashev. “In this case, a certain policy was put in place and there was a clash over the refugees, so evidently they want to put pressure on us.”


Whenever their political relations with Tashkent run into trouble, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can find themselves cut off from gas, often just as their harsh winters are about to set in.


However, the balance of power is not as one-sided as it looks. The snowcapped mountains of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan produce Central Asia’s most valuable asset, water, the lifeblood of bigger but flatter countries such as Uzbekistan.


It is in Kyrgyzstan’s interests to dam up all of its water in reservoirs and only release it to generate hydroelectricity over the winter. But that would destroy irrigated agriculture in Uzbekistan, so Kyrgyzstan’s view has always been that Uzbek gas and Kazak coal represent compensation for the water it releases from its dams in time for spring sowing in those countries. However, despite a 1998 agreement that provided for the free exchange of these different resources, the Kyrgyz have still struggled to get the gas they need from Uzbekistan.


Muratbek Imanaliev, a former foreign minister who is now a professor at the American University in Central Asia, located in Kyrgyzstan, said his country might now deny water to Uzbekistan in exchange for being starved of gas.


“This is blackmail by Uzbekistan…. Civilised countries do not act this way when politics impinge on trade relations,” he said.


“The Kyrgyz government may take reciprocal measures using water. For example, not storing up water in our reservoirs but rather releasing it [in winter] could cause waterlogging in Uzbekistan [while] in spring and summer there would be no irrigation water for them.”


Imanaliev believes the Uzbek government fully recognises the risks of its current strategy, and will thus restrict itself to “temporary intimidatory measures”.


Some Kyrgyz politicians still believe a deal will eventually be struck with the Uzbek government despite the latter’s concerns over Andijan.


“There will be talks and we’ll solve this problem,” said Iskhak Masaliev, a member of parliament. “I am confident that we’ll solve it - we are neighbours, after all.”


Government officials have so far avoided commenting on the possible gas crisis, no doubt in part because relations with Uzbekistan are both crucial and difficult. Acting prime minister Felix Kulov, asked about the issue by IWPR, said only that “these issues are being resolved, we’ll find some way out”.


Others believe the most practical step now is to negotiate a new deal with Kazakstan, which already supplies some gas to the north of Kyrgyzstan. The gas will cost a little more than the Uzbek product, but the main obstacle is that Kyrgyzstan has already run up a substantial gas bill which the Kazaks want paid before they increase the supply.


“An agreement must be reached with Kaztransgaz [Kazak national gas distributor] so that it continues to deliver gas. We have submitted a request for 250 million cubic metres - enough to provide for the needs of the north,” said Jusupov. “But they have made it a condition that Kyrgyzstan immediately pays off a debt of 17.5 million US dollars which has built up over the last three years. That’s a perfectly legitimate demand… the problem is one for the Kyrgyz government, which is unfortunately unable to pay its debts on time.”


Sarpashev agrees that it is Kazak gas or nothing. “We can only solve the problem with the Kazaks; we have no other options. We need to reach an agreement with them, and if we can’t do that, then our people need to be told honestly to lay in stocks of coal and logs as alternative fuel sources.”


Leila Saralaeva is an independent journalist in Bishkek.