When Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev dismissed Tashkent mayor Jahongir Artikhodjaev earlier this month, the proximate cause was the miserable struggling of the Uzbek capital’s electricity grid amid a cold snap and ongoing gas shortages. In dismissing Artikhodjaev, among several other city officials, Mirziyoyev cited a “lack of preparation for the winter season.”
Last winter, in late January 2022, a massive blackout plunged much of southern Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan into darkness. Although such a widespread multinational blackout has been avoided so far this year, all of Central Asia has struggled this winter. A recent article for RFE/RL by Chris Rickleton summed the sentiment up well in the title: “Another Cold, Dark Winter That Central Asia Will Not Forget.”
In Uzbekistan, Artikhodjaev appears to be on track as a prime scapegoat. Mirziyoyev ordered the State Security Service and prosecutors office to investigate him and the other dismissed officials. Following his dismissal from the mayor post, Artikhodjaev retained important positions in the city council and senate – and the immunity from prosecution that went with them. But this week he resigned early from those positions; his exit from the senate was confirmed in a January 30 decree from the Central Election Commission.
Artikhodjaev may be a political casualty of the region’s energy woes, but the shortages that have left people in Tashkent shivering is far more serious than a political scandal. The repercussions of the apparent vulnerabilities in Uzbekistan’s energy system have wide implications, none more serious than for Afghanistan.
As RFE/RL’s Abubakar Siddique reported recently, “The crippling power outages [in Afghanistan] have coincided with a severe cold snap that has led to the deaths of at least 160 people and the hospitalization of hundreds of others, including children.” The power outages, paired with severe cold, also cruelly combine with Afghans’ economic troubles. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) estimated that “Ninety-seven percent of Afghanistan’s population is at risk of poverty” in 2023. “Already, 91% of the average Afghan household’s money is spent on food, forcing many families to resort to rationing and other coping strategies,” IRC stated in a recent report. That leaves few funds for buying coal or wood to stay warm.
On January 14, Uzbekistan once again suspended electricity exports to Afghanistan, despite contracts in place, “in order to provide [its own] population with stable electricity during these cold days.”
This followed complaints in mid-December from Taliban officials who accused Uzbekistan of cutting off supplies. Uzbek officials pushed back, stating that supplies had been reduced but not cut off.
The Taliban’s Acting Energy and Water Minister Mullah Abdul Latif Mansour traveled to Tashkent on January 1 and left with a new deal: Uzbekistan would reportedly supply Afghanistan with 450 megawatts of electricity during the winter.
But two weeks later, with Tashkent experiencing extreme cold and outages even in the capital city, Uzbekistan cut off exports to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan imports more than 70 percent of its electricity from neighboring countries Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. A 2013 energy sector assessment from the Asian Development Bank generated in conjunction with a power transmission project stated that: “Currently, 73% of Afghan power supply is imported – 22% from Iran, 4% from Tajikistan, 17% from Turkmenistan, and 57% from Uzbekistan.” Even if there has been some shifting in that balance, Uzbekistan is likely still the most important source of electricity for Afghanistan.
As analyst Mohsin Amin tweeted almost three years ago: “The electricity-exporting countries Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Iran mostly sell their surplus electricity to Afghanistan. When they no longer have a surplus, they stop supplying.” This remains true.
In an English-language article about the resumption of electricity exports to Afghanistan, Kun.uz concluded by noting that the Uzbek Energy Ministry had “stressed that electricity produced in Uzbekistan and intended for domestic consumption is not exported.”
It then finished with this paragraph that suggests the lines of discontent in Uzbekistan about exporting any electricity:
However, it should be noted that people throughout Uzbekistan are facing severe power outages. The government even introduced planned power cuts. Residents of Tashkent, the capital city, have complained about constant electricity disruptions, low gas pressure and malfunctions in the central heating system. The situation in provinces is far worse. Despite all the problems with electricity and gas supply, Uzbekistan still continues selling its gas to China and electricity to Afghanistan, abandoning social facilities and leaving people to suffer cold in these extreme weather conditions.