Global consequences of Central Asia’s peculiar problem: Trend News commentator

Oil&Gas Materials 3 March 2009 15:58 (UTC +04:00)

Viktoriya Zhavoronkova, commentator at the Trend European Desk

Central Asia has been facing problems related to water and electricity supply for a long period. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan suffer from a shortage of electricity and the remaining three countries - Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - from a lack of water.

The point is that main water-bearing rivers in the region - Syr Darya and Amu Darya - first pass through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, then flowing into the other three countries with a significant lost of water. The main source of electricity in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are hydroelectric power plants. There is no other fuel, such as natural gas, in the countries. Given a lack of sufficient funds, buying electricity abroad is impractical because the water (used in hydroelectric power plants) is running via the country for free.

The produced electricity is insufficient to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This winter residents of the countries used to receive electricity for several hours a day. There was a need to construct additional hydroelectric power plants, using a larger amount of water. And that would certainly concern regional neighbors.

Uzbekistan was in the most disadvantaged situation. Cotton-growing is one of country's main agricultural branches. Cotton is a hygrophilous plant. Dropping water level in rivers will reduce cotton harvest.

However, neither Tajikistan nor Kyrgyzstan has sufficient funds to independently build hydroelectric power plants. So, both countries are forced to seek assistance abroad. Mainly two countries - the U.S. and Russia - are interested in assisting the Central Asian countries. The two countries are struggling to strengthen their influence in the region. Russia allocated $1.7 billion to Kyrgyzstan for construction of power plants. Many people believe Russia demanded to shut down the Manas airbase in exchange for the assistance.

Russia had plans to exchange Tajikistan's TALKO aluminum plant for Russian investments in construction of the Rogun hydroelectric power station on the Vakhsh River in the Amudarya basin.

During his visit to Uzbekistan, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev promised President Islam Karimov not to build electric power station in the Central Asia without neighbor countries' consent. Tajikistan accepted Russian President's statement as a message targeted at him and Russia's refusal to help the country.  

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon's visit to Russia ensued after which country's parliament decided to include aluminium plant to the list of strategic facilities of Tajikistan and refuse not yet signed agreement. 

Russia ended up in a peculiar triangle - a wish to become regional leader on one side and two Central Asian states opposing each other on the other two.

Closure of American Manas military base in Kyrgyzstan played an important role in strengthening Russia's influence in the region. Though this was last U.S. base in the Central Asia, it has two alternatives at least. First one is the former U.S. Air Forces base Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan. It is less likely to be returned to Americans until Russia maintains friendly relations with Uzbekistan. On the other hand, Russian military base in Tajikistan which will be Russian until Dushanbe maintains friendly relations with Moscow. What to do?

Pentagon needs base in the Central Asia for further operations in Afghanistan. The U.S. will take every advantage to deploy a base here which will mean Russia's defeat. However, water and energy confrontation between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan can undermine Russia's plans. It will either have to help Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with the construction of the hydroelectric power station and increase the likelihood of U.S. return to Karshi-Khanabad or it will have to think about Uzbekistan's cotton fields which will cause a threat of raising issue of Russia military presence in bases located in Tajikistan. None of these options is acceptable for Russia after "an important victory over Manas."

Losing one of these countries would mean a step back for Moscow which plays very important role in this geopolitical game. Maybe the sides must think about alterative way of energy supply besides water. The water supply problem of less developed Central Asian countries, which seems not to have global significance at first glance, plays an important role in the U.S.-Russia war over the world leadership.

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