Opportunities for optimism in covering Central Asia have been, at least recently, scant. The largely fruitless energy wasted in pushing the CASA-1000 pipeline, the democratization retreat in Kyrgyzstan, and the disintegrating civil space throughout the region all inauspiciously point to a growing autocratic reality. Despite China’s efforts otherwise, intra-regional fracture – surrounding hydro concerns and border insecurity, especially – continue nearly a quarter-century after the Central Asian states gained their independence. From either democratic or economic standpoints, 2014 was a bleak year for the region, and current trends look set to persist or worsen over the coming 12 months.
As such, when an opportunity arises for a bit of optimism, it is worth highlighting. The recent announcement that Uzbekistan would be restarting gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan is just such an opportunity. After over eight months without gas, southern Kyrgyzstan will finally access the gas – some 100 million cubic meters – it’s gone without as it enters mid winter.
The reasons for the restart of Uzbek gas remain opaque. Tashkent originally blocked gas flows four days after Russia’s Gazprom purchased Kyrgyzstan’s state gas matrix for $1 and forgave its debt. Uzbekistan, by all appearances, actually appeared to be in the right with its decision to shut off supplies, as it was not consulted on the sale as contractually demanded. But when a December meeting between Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov and Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to yield no resolution, Tashkent abruptly allowed the gas to flow to Kyrgyzstan once more on December 30. No reason has yet been given for the decision to open the transit, although it’s worth pointing to a notable warming in relations between Uzbekistan and Russia in the past few months.
Considering the existing acrimony between Tashkent and Bishkek – no two governments in Central Asia stand further apart – the move came as a welcome surprise to those watching the region. Instead of relying on the wood-fire and dung, residents of southern Kyrgyzstan will be able to enjoy the natural gas they had become accustomed to using. And Central Asia was able to enter 2015 with a slightly more positive start. While there’s little sign that the economic weight of a sinking Russia or the environmental concerns around water use will abate anytime soon, Tashkent’s willingness to open the transit once more is a welcome sign.