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Central Asia: Kazakhstan To Replace Uzbekistan In Gas Supplies To Kyrgyzstan

Officials in Bishkek announced today that Kazakhstan has agreed to meet the country's natural-gas needs after Uzbekistan -- the region's largest gas supplier -- cut off some of its shipments to Kyrgyzstan amid political tensions. In the past, Tashkent has used its gas sales as a way of putting political pressure on Bishkek. As RFE/RL reports, Kyrgyz officials believe the latest decision is linked to the July evacuation to Romania of more than 400 Uzbek refugees who had fled to Kyrgyzstan following the Andijon violence last May.

Prague, 30 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Kubanychbek Jusupov, the deputy head of Kyrgyzstan's national gas distributor Kyrgyzgaz, announced yesterday the Uzbek decision to cut off some of its natural gas shipments.

A day later, Jusupov told journalists in Bishkek that northern Kyrgyzstan will now receive its gas supplies from Kazakhstan's Kaztransgaz.

"Until the end of 2005, gas will continue to be supplied to Kyrgyzstan. Under a separate contract signed in August between Kyrgyzgaz and Uztransgaz, 103 million cubic meters of Uzbek gas will be supplied to southern Kyrgyzstan. This amount is enough for the south. To the north of the country, gas will be supplied by Kaztransgaz. It is also Uzbek gas, only it's supplied by Uztransgaz to Kaztransgaz," Jusupov said.

Kyrgyz lawmaker Davron Sabirov told RFE/RL the new arrangement means Kyrgyzstan will now be paying a higher price for its gas.

“As I worked in gas sector for almost 30 years, I know the issue quite well. We have bought gas only from Uzbekistan for the last 40 years. Kazakhstan also buys Uzbek gas. Now the situation is changing. We used to pay $42 for 1,000 cubic meters of Uzbek gas. Now Kazakhstan is demanding that we pay $43 for [1,000 cubic meters of] their gas," Sabirov said.

Uzbekistan, the biggest gas supplier in Central Asia, exports natural gas to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan via the Central Asia-Central Russia pipeline.

Kyrgyzstan has bought between 700 million and 800 million cubic meters of Uzbek gas annually, paying half of the price in cash and the other half in Kyrgyz-made goods. It also supplies Uzbekistan with water for the cotton-growing season.

Uzbekistan has cut gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan on numerous occasions in the past, when it said Bishkek was behind in its payments. Since Uzbekistan began charging higher rates for its natural gas in the mid-1990s, Kyrgyzstan has fallen into payment arrears.

Jusupov of Kyrgyzgaz said Kyrgyzstan owes $1.2 million to Uzbekistan for gas supplies.

However, independent observers say gas has always been a trump card in Uzbekistan’s relations with neighbors. Tashkent has used gas as a bargaining tool in disagreements with Bishkek and as a way of putting political pressure on its neighbor.

This time, the disagreement seems to be over the fate of Uzbek refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan after government troops forcibly put down an uprising in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon last May.

Jusupov told journalists he believes Tashkent’s move was in retaliation for a decision by Kyrgyz officials to allow the UN to evacuate hundreds of Uzbek refugees from Kyrgyzstan in late July.

Uzbekistan had sought their repatriation, saying many of them were wanted criminals. International observers feared Tashkent would prosecute and possibly even torture any Andijon protesters brought back into the country.

Jusupov said Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan signed a contract in mid-July on gas shipments through August 2006. But he said Tashkent broke the agreement after the evacuation of the 439 refugees to Romania.

"They don't say officially that [the decision to cut natural gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan] was made because of the refugees. But we believe this was the reason, because the contract was signed on 19 July, and then certain events happened, and then they refused to register the contract and sent us a letter saying we should get gas from Kazakhstan's supplies," Jusupov said.

Toshpulat Yuldoshev, an independent political observer from Tashkent, agrees the move is a result of the evacuation of the Andijon refugees.

“What Uzbekistan is doing is taking revenge on Kyrgyzstan. There is no other explanation for why they would decide now, less than two months later, to terminate an agreement signed in July. The reason for the decision was that despite all the pressure Uzbekistan put on Kyrgyzstan, it [Kyrgyzstan] still gave the Uzbeks the opportunity to leave for Romania,” Yuldoshev said.

Much of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity is generated by hydropower in the warmer months of the year. But natural gas is the primary fuel used for heat and electricity in many Kyrgyz towns and villages during the winter.

Past disruptions in gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan have resulted in blackouts and heating shortages during winter months.

The subsequent contract signed in August means that Uzbek gas will still be shipped to parts of southern Kyrgyzstan. But Sabirov says that if Uzbekistan had cut off all its energy supplies, over one-third of the people in Kyrgyzstan using Uzbek gas would be affected by the recent decision.

“The city of Bishkek and the Chui region around it [will be affected], including several towns, but it’s mostly Bishkek that uses [Uzbek] gas. The [Kyrgyz] government has tried to develop its coal sector. Osh and Jalal-Abad [in southern Kyrgyzstan] are also going to be affected. Altogether, some 30-40 percent of Kyrgyz territory is supplied by Uzbek gas,” Sabirov said.

Ganijon Kholmatov, a resident in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, says any decision by Tashkent to completely eliminate gas supplies would be likely to have a negative impact on interethnic relations in southern Kyrgyzstan, where there is a large Uzbek community.

“This decision is economic, but there are political reasons behind it. It will lead to worsening relations between the two countries and the two peoples, especially in the country’s south -- in Osh and Jalal-Abad, and also in Khojabad, where the gas comes through. Resuming gas supplies has always caused joy among the people and has been an important factor in strengthening friendship [between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks]. The recent decision is going to damage this friendship and complicate relations between the two peoples,” Kholmatov said.

Meanwhile, Kazakhs are set to strengthen their ties with Kyrgyzstan by stepping in to fill the energy gap.

Jusupov said Kyrgyzstan will have to buy more gas from Kazakhstan to prevent a possible crisis this winter. He added that Bishkek has to pay off a $17.5-million debt to Astana in order to ensure future Kazakh supplies.

The expected deal marks a new stage in Kazakhstan's economic expansion within Central Asia. It also confirms energy-rich Kazakhstan’s growing economic influence over its impoverished neighbor Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhs have already established a position of dominance in Kyrgyzstan's banking sector.

(Gofurjon Yuldoshev of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service and Burulkan Sarygulova of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service contributed to this report.)