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Gas, Water, and Strong-Arm Tactics

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by Alisher Khamidov 15 October 2009 What's more valuable in Central Asia, natural gas or water? Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan may soon find out. A recent Uzbek move to cut gas supplies has many Kyrgyz worrying about how to stay warm this winter. But experts say the gas cutoff may end up being counterproductive for Tashkent because it will encourage Kyrgyzstan to develop its hydropower generating capacity. That development could cause a significant reduction in the volume of water flowing into Uzbekistan.

Citing late payments and arrears of $19 million, the state-owned Uztransgaz cut natural gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan on 24 September. At the same time, Uztransgaz reduced gas delivery to the northern parts of the country by 70 percent. Salamat Aitikeev, the head of Kyrgyzgaz, a government agency in charge of the country's gas sector, told journalists on 5 October that Uzbek authorities would resume gas delivery only after Kyrgyzstan pays off its $19 million debt in its entirety.

Observers note that neither side is blameless in the latest energy spat. "You need to pay your bills on time. If you don't pay, you don't get service," a Tashkent-based journalist who works for an Uzbek state-run television outlet told EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. Tashkent is pursuing purely economic goals, he insisted.

Nevertheless, the timing of the cutoff, coming as temperatures start to drop in Central Asia, has prompted speculation about an Uzbek ulterior motive. Some experts view the gas embargo as punishment for Bishkek's recent decision to consider opening another Russian military base near the countries' shared border in the Ferghana Valley. Moreover, this year Uzbekistan has vociferously opposed Bishkek's intention to develop the Kambarata hydropower station. The chief worry in Tashkent is that the opening of upstream hydropower plants will end up depriving of water Uzbekistan's vast agricultural sector.

In perhaps the most inflammatory response from the Kyrgyz side thus far, Kyrgyz lawmaker Ziyadin Jamaldinov appeared to justify those fears, telling an 8 October parliamentary session that Kyrgyzstan should retaliate. "We must stop fully the delivery of water to Uzbekistan during the vegetation period," Jamaldinov said in widely distributed comments.

Alisher Khamidov is a freelance journalist in southern Kyrgyzstan. This is a partner post from EurasiaNet.

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