Uzbek Gas for Land Bid Fails

Tashkent's attempts to pressure Bishkek into making territorial concessions appears to have failed

Uzbek Gas for Land Bid Fails

Tashkent's attempts to pressure Bishkek into making territorial concessions appears to have failed

In a bid to force Kyrgyzstan to concede large tracts of border territory, Uzbekistan has played its trump card - the supply of natural gas.

Last month, Uzbekistan cut off gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan's industrial heartland and the resulting energy crisis sparked off angry protests in the streets of Bishkek.

Kyrgyz negotiators who attended last week's border demarcation talks in the Batken oblast claim their Uzbek counterparts offered to restore normal gas supplies only if Bishkek agreed to territorial concessions.

The Kyrgyz delegation held its ground and the talks ended acrimoniously.

Tashkent resorted to tough tactics in the face of Kyrgyz intransigence over the Uzbek enclave of Sokh. The Uzbeks want Bishkek to hand over the 10,000-hectare tract of land which separates Sokh from Uzbekistan.

Abdymadjit Abdyrakhmanov, deputy governor of the Batken oblast, said, "When the Kyrgyz delegation politely refused, the Uzbeks immediately proposed that Kyrgyzstan should hand over the main highway which links the enclave with Uzbekistan.

"At this point, they made repeated references to the Declaration on Everlasting Friendship Between Neighbours and called on us to understand the plight of people living in the Sokh enclave who experience huge difficulties with moving back and forth.

"On the face of it, this is only a couple of dozen kilometres of highway. But we are well aware that, if we hand it over to the Uzbeks, more than half of the Batken oblast will effectively become an enclave itself," explained Abdyrakhmanov.

The Kyrgyz delegates say they are unwilling to subject the region to the rigorous security regime which currently exists in Sokh, where checkpoints have been set up on every road and track leading out of Kyrgyzstan.

However, the Uzbek authorities insist that they have been forced to tighten border controls in a bid to stem the flow of drugs, weapons and terrorists into the country.

Consequently, frustrated by the lack of progress in official negotiations, Tashkent played its trump card. Last month, the supply of gas to the Chui oblast - Kyrgyzstan's industrial heartland - was abruptly cut off.

The Kyrgyz authorities assured local residents that this was due to a fault in the gas pipelines near Bukhara, caused by unusually harsh frosts. Experts say that the pipeline -- which dates from the Soviet era -- is also badly worn and poorly maintained.

Less than a week later, gas was restored to Uzbek towns across the border but, at the same time, the northern regions of Kyrgyzstan were hit simultaneously by a sudden cold snap and another massive drop in gas supplies.

Consequently, there has been a dramatic increase in electricity consumption, putting an impossible burden on the Kyrgyz electricity network and causing major overloads in substations across the country.

The growing crisis has provoked angry protests in Bishkek. In one incident, 150 people, mainly pensioners, blockaded one of the capital's main arteries demanding that gas and heating be restored without delay.

While the authorities in Bishkek affect to ignore Uzbekistan's adversarial tactics, parliamentary deputies are demanding the personal intervention of President Askar Akaev, pointing out that emergency meetings between energy chiefs and the vice prime-minister have failed to solve the crisis.

The deputies are infuriated by what they see as government indecision and an unwillingness to cross swords with the Uzbek authorities.

Alisher Abdimomunov, a parliamentary deputy who took part in the recent negotiations, said the Uzbek demands were totally unacceptable.

He said, "By cutting off the gas supply in the depths of winter, Uzbekistan is hardly behaving as a good neighbour should. I think they've got the false impression that we're flat broke and at the end of our tether.

"Just because they have a large population and oil and gas reserves, they think this gives them the right to claim political hegemony in the region. Apparently, they've forgotten that very soon millions of hectares of cotton will need to be watered."

Water may be the ace up Kyrgyzstan's sleeve. Kyrgyz prime minister Kurmanbek Bakiev has made it clear that, if Uzbekistan refuses to restore gas supplies, Kyrgyzstan will be forced to use more water from its reservoirs to increase production at its hydroelectric power stations.

This will drastically reduce reserves which are already well below the annual average and on which Uzbekistan relies to irrigate crops in the Fergana Valley.

It was a tactic that worked well in December 1999, when Uzbekistan cut off the gas supply to Kyrgyzstan for 20 days in an effort to recover bad debts.

On that occasion, the Kyrgyz authorities opened up the sluices at the hydroelectric dams and Uzbekistan, alarmed by the drop in water levels, swiftly restored the gas supply. And, in 2000, Bishkek managed to persuade Tashkent to reduce the cost of gas from $0.50 to $0.42 per 1,000 cubic metres.

This year, however, the Uzbek government has dragged its feet over the signing of a gas supply contract. All the official documents have duly been dispatched to Tashkent but no reply has been forthcoming.

Most observers agree that the current crisis will force the Kyrgyz government to review the possibility of charging neighbouring republics for the use of water from its reservoirs.

It is a topic which both Uzbekistan and Kazakstan studiously avoid but recent events may spur the Bishkek government into action.

But there are other factors in the energy equation. Uzbekistan is currently operating a number of oil and gas fields in the Batken region - fields which legally belong to Kyrgyzstan.

Under an agreement signed by the CIS states in 1992, former Soviet republics can claim ownership of any Soviet power plants located on their territory prior to December 1, 1990.

However, the Kyrgyz government of the time acknowledged that it did not have the resources to operate the fields and invited the Uzbek government to take temporary control.

Experts in the Batken oblast administration believe this decision has cost Kyrgyzstan at least $200 million in lost revenue. However, at the recent meeting in Batken, Uzbek negotiators categorically refused to discuss the issue.

For now, it looks like Kyrgyzstan's threat to retaliate by cutting off water in the event of Uzbekistan continuing to exert pressure seems to have worked.

Evidence of this came on February 26, when officials from both countries agreed on a resumption of Uzbek gas supplies to northern Kyrgyzstan and the provision of water for Uzbekistan's irrigation.

After the talks, Tashkent sought to play down its original ultimatum, saying the only reason it had cut off gas supplies was because it had been experiencing technical problems.

Sultan Jumagulov is a regular IWPR contributor

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