On November 28, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev visited Moscow, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials before heading onward to France. During his meeting with Putin, as Interfax reported, the Russian leader suggested forming a “trilateral [gas] union” and Tokayev responded positively, “Why not?” Tokayev said Putin was going to call the Uzbek president to discuss it.
The next day, Tokayev’s spokesman, Ruslan Zheldibay, posted on Facebook a clarification, as mention of a “gas union” didn’t make it into either the Kremlin’s or Akorda’s official readouts of the Putin-Tokayev meeting.
Zheldibay wrote that the two presidents discussed how “to coordinate joint actions for the transportation of Russian gas through the territories of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.” He added that “they think it is necessary to hold detailed talks with the participation of experts to find a rational solution to the issue that considers the interests of all involved sides.”
It’s worth noting here that both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have recently experienced the stark pain of the Central Asian region’s energy crisis. In Kazakhstan, on November 27, a privately owned power station that supplies electricity to the city of Ekibastuz — which sits near two of the region’s largest coal mines — broke down. As temperatures hit -30 degrees Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit), the city was without heat. Tokayev fired the region’s governor and this week a section manager* from the affected the power plant was found dead in his car in a garage.
Meanwhile, in Uzbekistan, in early November a fertilizer plant shut down production ahead of schedule, citing gas shortages. The same month, Uzbekistan suspended nearly all of its gas exports — much of which goes to China — to meet surging domestic demand. Winters in Central Asia have increasingly featured blackouts or breakdowns thanks to aged infrastructure; it’s a serious political and social issue in the region.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov provided some details on November 29, saying that a first step would be “the creation of a coordination mechanism” to discuss the proposal. He said that Kazakhstan could save “tens of billions of dollars” by importing gas into its northern regions from Siberia, rather than constructing internal pipelines to deliver domestically produced gas. There are pipelines in place that connect Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Russia, already, and another network that links Turkmenistan to China through the region.
In the 10 days after Tokayev’s stop in Moscow, it’s the term “union” that stuck in many minds, dovetailing with concerns generated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and surrounding political atmosphere in the former Soviet Union. The careful diplomatic tightrope walked by Astana and Tashkent between Russia and the West adds another layer of concern when words like “union” are bandied about.
Given Central Asia’s deep economic and political ties with Russia, already extending into the energy sphere, a proposed further intertwining is cause for some concern. Just as Russia has used European dependence on Russian gas as a pressure point as it pursues its war with Ukraine, some imagine Russia using energy to pressure Central Asian regimes, too. Abdulla Abdukadirov, an Uzbek economist and former official who spoke to Voice of America’s Navbahor Imamova, said, “We have nothing to gain from the Kremlin’s gas union and everything to lose.”
The ballooning discussion about a still very vague proposal sparked an apparent pushback from Uzbek authorities. In a December 8 interview with Uzbek media outlet Kun.uz, Uzbek Energy Minister Jurabek Mirzamahmudov sought to address public concerns about energy, broadly, and touched on the “gas union” proposal.
In response to a question about the “gas union,” the Uzbek energy minister noted that no such proposal has been officially made. He went on to say, “Even if a gas agreement is concluded with Russia, this does not mean a union.” He noted that Uzbekistan does not border Russia, so any negotiations regarding Russian gas would be over technical contracts for delivery of gas through Kazakhstan.
When asked about concerns that Tashkent was looking to Moscow for assistance in dealing with the energy crisis, with attached “political conditions,” Mirzamahmudov pushed back more firmly:
I must say that we will never risk our national interests, economy, or independence. If we import gas from another country, we cooperate only based on a commercial sales contract. We will never agree to political conditions in exchange for gas. In short, we will get the gas contract offered to us only if we agree to it, otherwise not.
Kun.uz asked about conspiracy theories suggesting that Russia has “artificially created” the energy shortage in Uzbekistan to generate motivation for swifter progress on the construction of a nuclear power plant. Mirzamahmudov explained that the reasons behind the shortage are internal: “The only reason is an increase in domestic consumption and a decrease in production.”
And Uzbekistan, he underscored, is not looking to the nuclear power plant to solve the country’s energy woes. If commissioned in 2030, Mirzamahmudov said the 2.4 GW plant would be able to cover 10-15 percent of expected domestic demand. At the same time, Uzbekistan is adding new power stations at existing thermal power plants and aims to expand its wind and solar capacity from 8 GW to 15 GW. The nuclear power plant is one facet of the government’s efforts, and one still under intense negotiation.
Mirzamahmudov’s interview was reported as “pouring cold water” on Putin’s plan for a “gas union.” The Kremlin bristled at this characterization. Peskov told reporters that the proposed “gas union” did not involve any “political terms.”
“No one is talking about that,” he said.
In the end, there’s no concrete proposal on the table, just a ghost of an idea that has some merits, but also some risks.
Update: As one helpful reader pointed out after this article was initially published, the “gas union” idea isn’t all that novel. In fact, two decades ago in 2002 Russia was promoting a “gas alliance” among the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), particularly Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. That “gas alliance” never materialized and within a decade China had become a major importer of Central Asian gas.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the individual found dead in a garage in Ekibastuz was a city official. As the power plant affected is privately owned, he is not a city official. The Diplomat apologizes for this error.