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Central Asia: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan Hope Gazprom Deals Will Make Their Winters Warmer

Last week, the head of Russia's giant natural-gas company Gazprom was in Central Asia, where he signed new deals with officials in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The agreements promise to give Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan a reliable supply of gas throughout the year -- something they have never enjoyed since becoming independent in late 1991. As RFE/RL reports, the agreements cut the two countries' dependence on neighboring Uzbekistan and also give Gazprom a strong foothold for developing other energy resources in Central Asia.

Prague, 22 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Though the first day of summer is still a month away, the people of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan already have a reason to look forward to winter.

New deals between Russian natural-gas monopoly Gazprom and the Kyrgyz and Tajik governments may provide the two nations with a reliable source of energy for the first time since the Soviet Union broke apart in late 1991.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been dependent since then on neighboring Uzbekistan for the bulk of the natural gas they receive. The Uzbek government has used this advantage on several occasions to pressure Bishkek and Dushanbe to bring their policies into line with those of Tashkent.

The deals also give Russian companies -- and ultimately the Russian government -- new footholds in energy-rich Central Asia and new access to one of the potentially greatest energy resources in the region -- hydroelectricity.

Aleksei Miller, the head of Gazprom, visited Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan last week and signed new agreements in both countries.

Tajik presidential spokesman Safar Saidov said Gazprom intends to help repair Tajikistan's damaged energy infrastructure. "During today's talks, both sides emphasized that they are going to organize long-term, profitable cooperation in these areas -- extraction and use of resources inside Tajikistan and repair of [gas and oil] wells, some further work on the wells and repair of pipelines," Saidov said.

Miller and Tajik Energy Minister Abdullo Yerov signed a 25-year agreement on strategic cooperation in the gas industry on 15 May. The next day, Miller signed another agreement with Kyrgyzstan, which he said, "will ensure reliable gas supplies to meet the demands" of Kyrgyzstan in 2003 and 2004.

The agreements specify that the Russian company will help Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan develop their own natural-gas resources. More immediately, Gazprom will help provide supplies of gas to both countries. The Kyrgyz and Tajik governments are no doubt hopeful this marks the end of sudden gas-supply interruptions and the rationing of electricity and gas, especially during winter months.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been dependent on Uzbekistan for supplies of natural gas since the days of the Soviet Union. Then, all were part of the unified power-grid systems built by Soviet labor, which brought gas from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

Since they were all fraternal Soviet republics, there was no question of payment. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the independent states meant the days of free natural gas were over.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were among the poorer of the Soviet republics and are now among the poorest of the CIS states. Both these countries quickly accumulated large bills for the gas they consumed.

Uzbekistan has often cut supplies to both countries, citing these debts. But many had questioned the timing of these gas interruptions, which almost always seemed to follow political decisions that had displeased the Uzbek government and which would often occur during winter.

The first time Uzbekistan stopped gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan, for example, was after Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian state to break out of the ruble zone in May 1993, when it introduced its own national currency. Tashkent, and other Central Asian states, had warned against this move, fearing their territories would become the dumping ground for Kyrgyzstan's unwanted rubles, which at the time were devaluating at an alarming rate.

The gas stopped, with the Uzbek government claiming it was due to Kyrgyzstan's unpaid debt.

Kyrgyzstan's problems were compounded later when, under agreements from the late 1990s, Uzbekistan insisted on charging world prices for its gas instead of the favorable rates it had initially granted its neighbors.

Similar events have involved Tajikistan and the Uzbek government. The cutoffs have led to the temporary closures of schools in winter and the rationing of energy to households and industries. And pilgrimages by Kyrgyz and Tajik energy officials to Tashkent to plead for extensions on payment have become almost annual events.

Now, it is not Uzbekistan selling gas to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but Russia, although it is still local gas both countries will receive. Gazprom also has made deals to buy natural gas from Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and it is this gas that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will be receiving. Payments for the gas will be made to Gazprom, however, not the Uzbek government.

In the agreements, Gazprom also promised to help the two countries develop their resources to meet their own needs. Miller said in Bishkek that "nobody creates illusions with regard to Kyrgyzstan's gas reserves." Gazprom officials admit Kyrgyz gas would only help to augment Gazprom supplies, since estimates show Kyrgyzstan's proven reserves would only meet the country's needs for a few years.

The same is true of Tajikistan. But Alex Vatanka -- the chief editor of the London-based "Jane's Security Assessment Binder for Russia/CIS" -- told RFE/RL that in Tajikistan's case, the Gazprom agreements may have the approval of the Russian government, which is seeking to maintain its influence in the region.

"This could be very much a political measure. This could have been done in coordination with the Kremlin. This could have been part of a strategic approach to Tajikistan, trying to make sure that dependence on Russia is not reduced in any way or sense," Vatanka said.

But both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have an energy resource that has barely been tapped into -- hydroelectricity. Gazprom's deals leave open the possibility that it will be Russian companies who finish what Soviet engineers started.

Vatanka said finishing these hydroelectric projects makes good sense for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but equally for Russia. But Vatanka said it is not likely to happen soon. "Both the Kyrgyz state and Tajik state have the potential -- significant potential -- for hydroelectric production, and it could come about and be on-stream soon, if the money is there. When I say soon, I mean 10 to 20 years down the road, and the Russians perhaps want to make sure they have a say in that," he said.

Two of the hydroelectric projects, the Rogun hydroelectric plant and Kyrgyzstan's Cascade project, could provide enormous amounts of energy, enough to allow Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to become regional energy exporters. Afghanistan has already been named as one country that could benefit from the completion of the two projects. Pakistan is another.

However, the costs of completing these plants remain prohibitively high. Estimates for finishing the Rogun hydroelectric facility run as high as $2 billion, for example.

For those looking far into Central Asia's future, it is worth noting that Russia's participation in the two hydroelectric projects would also give Russian companies a strategic foothold in the upper reaches of Central Asia's two largest rivers -- the Syr-Darya and the Amu-Darya -- which bring water to the fields of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan.

(Iskander Aliyev of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)