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Be Careful What You Promise, President Mirziyoev

  • Bruce Pannier

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (left) and his Uzbek counterpart, Shavkat Mirziyoev, talk in Bishkek on September 5.

He has not even officially been president of Uzbekistan for a full year, but Shavkat Mirziyoev has already taken some big steps toward improving his country's relations with its neighbors.

However, one wonders if he might even be going too far in some cases.

Mirziyoev's September 5-6 visit to Kyrgyzstan was the latest demonstration of that.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev could not have looked more pleased while Mirziyoev was in Kyrgyzstan; this is not surprising, since Atambaev clearly had a poor relationship withlongtime Uzbek leader Islam Karimov, who died last year. (Qishloq Ovozi looked at one of the many tense Karimov-Atambaev moments a couple of years back.)

But amid all the talk of friendship and bilateral cooperation, both Mirziyoev and Atambaev seemed to get a bit carried away when speaking of the Kambar-Ata-1 hydropower plant (HPP) project.

Mirziyoev said previous problems with construction of the HPP were resolved, and that Uzbekistan would "take part in the financing" of the project.

"Not one [hydropower] station will be built without the participation of Uzbekistan," Atambaev vowed.

Slow down, gentlemen.

To start with, Uzbekistan's economy is not in good shape, though Mirziyoev is taking measures to rectify this problem.

The government floated the national currency -- taking the som from the official rate of 4,200/$1 to 8,100 -- on the day Mirziyoev arrived in Kyrgyzstan as part of his government's plan to start Uzbekistan on the road to currency convertibility.

The estimated cost of building Kambar-Ata-1 is some $3 billion and Uzbekistan already has plans to invest some $4.35 billion into construction of domestic HPPs.

According to plans, Kambar-Ata-1 would have four turbines with a combined generating capacity of some 2,000 megawatts.

State company Uzbekenergo currently runs 29 HPPs with a combined capacity of 1,400 megawatts, so Uzbekistan does not have experience with mega-HPPs like Kambar-Ata-1.

As for Atambaev's vow about Uzbekistan being part of every HPP to be built in Kyrgyzstan from here on, that is already not true.

The well-publicized -- certainly in Kyrgyzstan -- deal with the Czech company Liglass to construct part of the Kyrgyzstan Upper Naryn Cascade project was just announced in July, though there are signs that that agreement might fall apart before the end of September.

In any case, it is difficult to imagine the Kyrgyz authorities would reject a solid offer from any outside entity to build HPPs simply because Uzbekistan was not involved.

Going Too Far?

To bring the focus back to Mirziyoev: he may have promised more than Uzbekistan can deliver as concerns Kambar-Ata-1 -- but that would not be the first time he has been overly enthusiastic about cooperation with a Central Asian country.

When Mirziyoev visited Turkmenistan in May and met with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, an agreement was signed for the state oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz to help develop an offshore site in Turkmenistan's section of the Caspian Sea.

Again, Uzbekistan's ability to help finance such a project is one question, and the fact that Uzbekistan is a double-landlocked country (meaning at least two countries between Uzbekistan and access to the world's oceans) raises more questions about whether Uzbekistan has the expertise to engage in such a project.

Returning to Uzbek-Kyrgyz relations, the most important thing about Mirziyoev's comments on Kambar-Ata-1 is the fact that Uzbekistan no longer opposes its construction.

Karimov was absolutely against construction of Kambar-Ata-1, as well as of the Roghun HPP in Tajikistan, saying they would affect the flow of water downstream to Uzbekistan's agricultural areas. He famously mentioned that water could be a reason for war in Central Asia, without referring to any particular country.

It had been difficult enough for Kyrgyzstan to attract foreign investors for its HPP projects; the knowledge that the country's much larger neighbor had made thinly veiled threats against moving ahead with such projects further limited potential interest.

All the same, Mirziyoev's stated desire to improve relations with neighboring countries might be leading him to make some rash statements.

He promises much but some of it does not seem possible.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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