Kurmanbek Bakiev, the 51-year-old former governor of Kyrgyzstan's Jalalabad and Chu provinces, was appointed his country's prime minister three months ago (21 December). His government inherited a number of problems. For the past several years, Soviet-era regional energy distribution systems have left Kyrgyzstan at the mercy of Uzbekistan -- its neighbor and primary natural-gas supplier -- with the result that many of Kyrgyzstan's citizens have suffered through cold winters. Armed Islamic militants moved into the southern part of the country in 1999 and 2000, and they are likely to do so again this year. Kyrgyzstan also has unresolved border problems with both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in Bishkek Thursday (15 March), Bakiev discussed all these issues. Correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.
Prague, 19 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev first addressed the question of Kygyzstan's energy shortage. With winter coming to an end, the issue of natural-gas supplies from Uzbekistan has receded in importance. But Bakiev said the energy shortage has become an annual problem.
"Every year when winter comes, and the frost with it -- for the last three or four years -- Uzbekistan has shut off the gas. This year they said there was an accident [with the gas pipeline]. There was one, but it was repaired and we continued not to get gas and to suffer during the winter days."
Uzbekistan says the shut-offs are the result of Kyrgyzstan's unpaid energy debt. But the frequency of shut-offs has led mountainous Kyrgyzstan this year to make greater use of its domestic source of power -- hydroelectricity. Bakiev said less than one-quarter of the hydroelectric power generated in Kyrgyzstan is actually used domestically. But that is changing as the country switches from natural gas to electricity.
Unfortunately, while the change may keep Kyrgyzstan's citizens warmer during winter, it could also leave Uzbek farms drier during the summer. Water in the country's huge Toktogul reservoir is increasingly being used to generate power for Kyrgyzstan when gas supplies run low or are stopped. Bakiev explained the Toktogul reservoir is now low.
"If the water goes any lower [in the reservoir,] we will not be able to generate hydroelectricity. So we said [to a recent visiting Uzbek delegation] that this year we can only give you less than half of the usual amount of water. We can't give any more because the level in the reservoir will drop [further] and we won't be able to generate any hydroelectricity. Then next winter we could be without gas and electricity, and this represents a risk to our people."
The reservoir's low level means farmers' fields in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan will be short of water this year. As a result, Bakiev said, legislation has been introduced in the Kyrgyz parliament to treat water as an export product. He said there is international precedent for this, although the practice is new to Central Asia.
"We use less than 25 percent [of the reservoir's water on Kyrgyz territory] and our neighbors don't pay anything for the water they get. We're paying for it. It seems to me we need this [new] water law. If we will use our water correctly, according to the law, the Kyrgyz economy will improve. It seems right that Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan or other nations base their relations with us on parity. This should have been the way in the past. People think that water comes from God, goes where it will and people can use it as they wish. This is not correct."
Bakiev also spoke about problems involved in the demarcation of Kyrgyzstan's borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. He noted that marking Kyrgyzstan's border with China had taken seven years to achieve and, he said, that was relatively simple compared to fixing borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Bakiev said the recent militarization of these borders complicates negotiations.
"The borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are so mixed-up, they zigzag so much, that the territories are intertwined. It is a difficult problem. My opinion is that setting up border posts and check-points and installing border guards are unnecessary. There are enclaves -- Kyrgyz, Uzbek -- so we should take away all these posts, except customs, to create favorable conditions so people in border zones can travel freely."
This is unlikely to happen in the near future because incursions into Kyrgyz and Uzbek border areas by armed militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, are expected to take place for a third year in a row as warmer weather clears the mountain passes. Bakiev has made several recent visits to Kryzyzstan's southern Batken Province, where the IMU attacked Kyrgyz forces in both 1999 and 2000. He said preparations have been made to repel the militants if they try again.
"During the last two years, our soldiers and officers have gained experience, and I am confident. The mood of the local population is good despite the shortage of food and the fact that they are poorly clothed. They say that, if needed, they will all stand and defend the country. We have taken a series of measures. The army is [now] in place all across Batken Province. Its weapons are far more up-to-date [than before]. Our financial problems [in upgrading the military] are more or less solved. We have sufficient force and means to defend our borders and will never give any of our land to enemies. I say this with confidence."
Bakiev did not address the long-term plans of his government. He noted, however, that Kyrgyzstan has had seven prime ministers in less than 10 years, a practice he called "counter-productive." He said officials need to be in place long enough to learn their tasks. The system of one official starting a project, another continuing it and a third finishing it, he said, does not provide positive results.
( Kyias Moldokasymov of the Bishkek bureau conducted the interview with Bakiev, and Bayan Jumagulova and Naryn Idinov of the Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)