Tajiks have reason to look forward to a brighter, warmer future. Drilling has begun on a new natural-gas well that promises to reverse their history of energy dependence.
Zarubezhneftegaz, a subsidiary of the Russian gas giant Gazprom, started drilling at the Sarikamysh gas field on December 7. Gazprom head Aleksei Miller was in Tajikistan on the big day, and offered a bullish estimate of project's worth to the Central Asian country's future.
Regarding the potential of the Sarikamysh field, Miller said that "on the basis of the seismic surveys we have conducted we understand that the estimated reserves in this structure is some 60 billion cubic meters of gas." Miller said this amount was enough to supply Tajikistan for 50 years.
The amount estimated at the Sarikamysh field, located some 35 kilometers southwest of the capital, Dushanbe, is not enough to make Tajikistan a dominant global energy force -- 60 billion cubic meters (bcm) would only serve the European Union's needs for about two months. But it is enough to be a game changer.
The discovery of the Sarikamysh field has Tajikistan -- which has long been dependent on Uzbekistan for most of its natural gas supplies -- poised to forever change its relations with Tashkent. No Longer Hat In Hand
To this point, Tajikistan had been pinning its dreams of energy self-sufficiency on hydropower plants currently under construction. But those plants are years away from completion, and could be delayed further due to downstream Uzbekistan's fierce objections that they would deny it water needed to sustain its agricultural sector.
Gazprom's CEO Aleksei Miller is upbeat.
As long as Tajikistan's dependence on Uzbek energy continued, it was in a position weakness in the diplomatic arena.
Were ties between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan good, this arrangement would not be so problematic. But Uzbekistan has regularly used its gas supplies as a means of showing displeasure with the Tajik government's decisions.
Admittedly, Tajikistan has been a chronic debtor and at almost any time Uzbekistan has been able to cite unpaid bills for gas and reduce or suspend supplies. But many have seen a pattern where Uzbekistan has used gas supplies to punish the Tajik government for moves that are unpopular in Tashkent.
And the reductions and suspensions have come at the worst of times, such as winter 2007-08 when the cutoff came during the coldest weather Central Asia had seen in 40 years. Hospitals in Dushanbe were reduced to a few hours of electricity a day; several newborn babies died in hospitals because of the cold.
Uzbekistan has also grown increasingly insistent on prompt payments. Several years ago Tajikistan could accumulate debts of tens of millions of dollars but this year Uzbek officials warn Tajikistan about suspensions of supplies when the unpaid bill approaches $2 million.
Uzbekistan has more than quadrupled the price of its gas in the last six years as world prices for the "blue fuel" rose. This has led Tajikistan to drastically reduce the amount of Uzbek gas it buys. In 2009 Tajikistan received some 216 million cubic meters, a 57 percent reduction compared to 2008.New Regional Dynamic
Tajikistan's desire to break this dependence on Uzbekistan is what has driven the campaign for more hydropower plants. The completion of the Sangtuda-1 plant, built with Russian help, has already alleviated energy shortages and Tajik officials hoped the completion of two others -- Roghun and Sangtuda-2 -- would finally allow the country to meet its energy needs using domestic resources.
But Miller's announcement could mean that by late 2011 Tajikistan could wean itself off Uzbek gas completely. Between January and October this year, Tajikistan produced a bit more than 16 million cubic meters of gas. Miller promised 2 bcm yearly starting somewhere between 2011 and 2013 -- more than enough to cover its annual consumption, estimated at around 1 bcm.
The future would look even brighter should Tajikistan complete all its hydropower projects, which would turn Tajikistan from an energy importer into an energy exporter with potential customers in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, and even Kyrgyzstan.
This change in Tajikistan's energy fortunes will likely change the way Dushanbe engages Tashkent. Relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have never been good and at times the exchanges between the two governments have been insulting and hostile. But the Tajik government has always been aware of the country's dependence on Uzbekistan for gas supplies and has been forced to either temper its criticism or quickly qualify and water down statements made by individual officials.
Freed of this burden, Tajik authorities may feel a greater ability to resist Uzbekistan's pressure, something that in the end will likely see the bad ties between the two countries grow even worse.
Uzbekistan, in turn, is likely to say if Tajikistan has enough gas there is no need for the huge hydropower plants Tajikistan is building. That would ignore the fact Tajikistan is part of an inter-Asian energy connection scheme and could make money exporting electricity from its hydropower plants to neighboring countries.Reasons For Optimism
Tajik officials are expressing cautious optimism about the Sarikamysh gas field, as Emomali Aslov, the head of the Energy and Industry Ministry's gas and oil directorate, told RFE/RL's Tajik Service.
"It is only a forecast at this point of time," Aslov said. "We need to drill and after that when we find signs of oil and gas we could talk about industrial production and extraction of natural gas."
Aslov and others in Tajikistan might take comfort in the fact that Gazprom's Miller has rarely been wrong about perspective gas fields and his company has spent a good deal of money bringing in equipment to drill a well that goes more than 6 kilometers deep.
The Gazprom chief seems to be fairly certain about Sarikamysh, and Miller noted in Dushanbe on December 7 that it is only one of several gas fields Gazprom intends to develop in Tajikistan.Iskander Aliev of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report