Gazprom was supposed to end Kyrgyzstan’s gas shortages and contract disputes with its neighbors. Instead, since the Russian energy giant took control of Kyrgyzstan’s bankrupt gas company almost two months ago, the country has faced one of its worst gas crises in memory.
The immediate cause of the shortage is Uzbekistan. The Uzbek state gas supplier, Uztransgaz, closed the taps on April 14, leaving an estimated 60,000 households in southern Kyrgyzstan without gas. Kyrgyz leaders are now proposing solutions that are likely to get Uzbekistan’s attention, but could prove risky.
The problem appears to have started on a technicality: Shortly before Kyrgyzgaz handed control of its debt-ridden gas network to Gazprom, its supply contract with Uzbekistan ran out. Uztransgaz agreed to add two more weeks, to April 15, but who were they supposed to negotiate with? The now-defunct Kyrgyzgaz? Gazprom? Gazprom’s new local subsidiary Kyrgyzgazprom?
That question lingers, but after almost two months it sounds like the Uzbeks are not keen to talk.
Deputy Prime Minister Valery Dil says he has tried multiple times to reach his Uzbek counterparts, yet they ignore him. Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev has also complained he can't get anyone in Tashkent to take his calls.
Why exactly Uzbekistan has cut off the gas is not clear, but the impasse has prompted all sorts of questions: Is Uzbekistan trying to get something from Russia or from Kyrgyzstan? Did Russia play a part in the shutoff in order to get some concession from Kyrgyzstan? Is a “third party” involved? Is Uzbekistan, which has crippling gas shortages of its own, selling the gas to the region's big spender, China? (For what it’s worth, Gazprom has not said anything publicly about the shutoff. But curiously, two weeks after the cut began, it posted a press release entitled, “Gazprom strengthens energy security in Kyrgyzstan.”)
Many believe Uzbekistan is concerned about Russia’s growing influence in Central Asia. Recently this influence has taken the shape of an economic and political alliance, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which Kyrgyzstan plans to join next year. Certainly this wouldn’t be the first time Uzbekistan has turned off the gas to pressure neighbors. Uzbekistan altogether stopped supplying gas to Tajikistan at the beginning of 2013 amid mounting tensions over Tajikistan’s plans to build a giant hydropower dam upstream. And last week Uzbek President Islam Karimov was quoted as saying that he thought the EEU was a bad idea.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyz leaders are making suggestions certain to get the Uzbeks’ attention. Last week, Kyrgyzgazprom chairman Turgunbek Kulmurzayev suggested shutting off gas to Uzbekistan’s exclave of Sokh, an area of approximately 30,000 Uzbek citizens entirely surrounded by Kyrgyz territory in the flammable Ferghana Valley, Knews reported.
A lawmaker has proposed blocking the flow of water to downstream Uzbekistan, which would especially hurt now during the summer growing season. Indeed, Fergana News reported on June 9, Kyrgyz officials are also looking into repairing part of a canal that controls flows into Uzbekistan. They stress the repairs are not to punish their neighbor, but the timing is suspect.
President Almazbek Atambayev has called for patience, insisting that Gazprom will come through and that the conflict will make Kyrgyzstan stronger. “I think it’s necessary to be patient, for a month or two or three. The issue will be resolved,” he said on June 6, adding that at least northern Kyrgyzstan is not affected.
Atambayev sounded dismissive. "Solving fundamental problems takes a little patience for one’s country. And there’s no need for self-sacrifice. Food, for example, can be cooked not on a gas stove, but on a hotplate. Is this such a tragedy? We need to strive for complete independence, including in terms of gas. If Uzbekistan digs in its heels, then we’ll all pitch in and lay a pipeline from the north to the south, but there will be gas no matter what,” Kyrgyzstan’s state news agency quoted Atambayev as saying. “This is the path to independence. The real path to complete independence is sprinkled with prickles.”
The deal to sell Kyrgyzgaz to Gazprom, ratified by parliament in December, met strong disapproval among civil society activists and legislators worried the arrangement was surrendering some measure of sovereignty. This ongoing shortage has only confirmed those fears.
Security officials appear to be taking any sign of frustration seriously. In Bishkek on June 9 police detained at least six activists who staged a brief flash mob protesting the gas crisis and the sale to Gazprom. Seeking to draw attention to the shortage, the activists were trying to deliver giftwrapped packets of livestock dung – traditionally used for heating and cooking – to government leaders including Atambayev, Kloop.kg reported.