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Reviving Energy Interdependence in Central Asia

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Reviving Energy Interdependence in Central Asia

How the Central Asian Integrated Power System failed, and what might bring it back online.

Reviving Energy Interdependence in Central Asia
Credit: Depositphotos

In late May, Tajikistan’s government yet again announced that the country’s energy system would reconnect to the Central Asian Integrated Power System (IPS or CAPS), a network allowing states in the region to exchange electricity based on seasonal fluctuations in supply and demand. The technical process of reconnection, funded by the Asian Development Bank, was first announced back in 2018, and is already two years past the stated deadline. A response to an informal inquiry suggested that the connection, which is delayed for technical reasons, should now be completed by July 2024. 

Central Asian deadlines are fluid and stretchy, like the riverbed of Amu Darya, which flows down from the Pamiris and separates the great deserts of the region. Nevertheless, Tajikistan’s intention to reconnect to the common power system, whether it takes place this summer or is postponed again, offers a strong indication of the realization by Central Asian leaders that the region’s potential can only be achieved through cooperation.

Common rhetoric goes that Stalin drew the administrative borders of the Central Asian republics ignoring ethnic borders with the simple intention to “divide and conquer.” A more accurate historic interpretation suggests that the choice for the borders was made after careful deliberations by Soviet planners with the intention to create functioning economic units. However, as the economic resources in the different republics were often complementary, it was logical to design and develop trans-regional transportation energy and communication networks that would traverse administrative borders for the sake of benefits derived from synergy.

In this sense, physical geography defined the direction of the energy network based on the seasonal electricity and water needs of the industrial and agricultural areas of the region. Mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan provided hydro-generated electric power and water to downstream Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. The latter three sent coal- and gas-generated electricity to the upstream countries when water levels were not sufficient to produce electricity.

The Central Asian IPS was a sophisticated network that connected the power grids of the Soviet republics. Its main circular section, referred to as Central Asian energy ring, transported electricity produced by Kyrgyzstan’s multiple hydropower stations through the Fergana Valley, traversing populous sections of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and southern Kazakhstan before reentering Kyrgyzstan from the north. Tajikistan’s hydropower plants serviced southern Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. During winters, upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan stored water and relied on electricity generated by the thermal power stations of their neighbors. During the agricultural season the two upstream states would release water for the irrigation needs of their downstream neighbors while simultaneously generating electric power. 

Considering the interweaving nature of the region’s borders, various internal subregions served as energy suppliers for their neighbors and vice versa. For instance, energy abundant southern Tajikistan used to supply electricity to neighboring Uzbekistan, while energy deficient northern Tajikistan received its electricity from other sections of Uzbekistan. Similarly, southern Kyrgyzstan supplied electricity to the Fergana Valley area of Uzbekistan, while northern Kyrgyzstan obtained its electricity from central regions of Uzbekistan using Kazakhstan section of the grid for transit. The frequency of the electric power flow was controlled through the Toktogul reservoir in Kyrgyzstan, which due to its upstream location had the most capacity to store and release water as necessary. Centrally located Uzbekistan played a crucial role in the IPS. The whole hydro-energy complex required a great amount of coordination and was managed by the Central Asian United Dispatch Center in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent. Above all, during the Soviet period the water-energy balance was calculated and controlled by the USSR’s Ministry of Energy in Moscow.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, multiple disagreements about the power generating and transit complex and water sharing arrangements resulted to states disconnecting from the system. Turkmenistan left in 2003, but its abundance of hydrocarbon resources and peripheral location accounted for a relatively smooth withdrawal. However, after 2006, the Central Asian IPS dealt with numerous power outages originating in the national power grids. Tajikistan, in need of power during the cold winters, occasionally overloaded the system. Subsequent discord was used as a motivation for Uzbekistan to leave the IPS in 2009, significantly affecting the rest of the system. Because Tajikistan’s section of the ring lay between the borders with Uzbekistan, the former became disconnected from the Central Asian IPS. Tajikistan could no longer continue exporting energy to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan because Uzbekistan had withdrawn. Furthermore, the utility of exchange with Kyrgyzstan remained limited because of the non-complementary needs of the two upstream countries. 

The dismantlement of the regional network mirrored fragmentation of the region in other sectors. Weary of large non-titular nationalities present in almost every republic, the newly established states placed heavy emphasis on nation-building. The young states severed ties in farming and industries, eliminated train services between major cities, limited educational opportunities for non-nationals, and in rare cases instituted visa regimes and sealed off borders, ignoring road networks that had long connected the region. A trip through Central Asia is not complete without dead-ending into a block of concrete in a border area. 

Fast-forward 15 years and the region, which sits on massive reserves of hydrocarbons and exports significant amounts abroad, is afflicted by continuous disruptions in power supply. Blackouts in major cities have become common and public discontent about energy has become a major concern. Hence, the recent efforts to reconnect Tajikistan to the IPS and thereby reinvigorate the trans-regional synergy of hydrocarbons and hydropower. 

The efforts to revive energy interdependence reflect, this time around, cooperative rhetoric, which has been more apparent in recent years. Numerous diplomatic exchanges between regional leaders provided solid results in resolving sensitive territorial disputes, which for a long time bred distrust and prevented cross-border commerce and people’s exchanges. This cooperative trend is driven by economic pragmatism, but has emerged in within a more conducive regional and geopolitical climate. 

First of all, Central Asia’s present leaders have increased confidence, both in their states’ sovereignties but also in their individual power. They have come to realize that the main risk to their regimes emanate from social instabilities caused by economic concerns, rather than from separatist movements allegedly supported by their neighbors. The ethnic Uzbeks in Osh, Kyrgyzstan do not want to join Uzbekistan; they want to be able to visit their relatives in Andijan by driving two hours across the border, instead of detouring for 10 hours.

Nowhere in the region has there been evidence of separatist movements supported by neighboring states. Admittedly, interstate conflicts, such as the border war between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2022, remain a risk, but these have often been contained to sparsely populated regions. Instead, the greatest shocks of recent years, such as unrest in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan and violent protests in Kazakhstan in 2022, were driven by economic concerns, such as unemployment or high prices for essentials. Interethnic conflicts that flare up, such as those between Kazakhs and the Dungan minority, between Tajiks and Pamiris, and during the recent Bishkek riots of 2024, which targeted foreigners, are also grounded in animosity driven by economic frustrations. 

The region’s present leaders seem to appreciate the importance of economic prosperity for the stabilities of their regimes, and recognize the fact that they can move toward this prosperity through increased interstate cooperation. 

Thirty years of independence increased their confidence as individual leaders, in part with the passing of most of the Soviet-era cohort. No longer does personal competition for leadership, such as between Islam Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbayev, define regional dynamics. Instead, Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirzoyayev, who patiently waited for the death of his isolationist predecessor before coming to power in 2016, has acted as a leading force for cooperation, opening the center of Central Asia, Uzbekistan, to the rest of the region once again.

His counterpart in Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, a career diplomat who became president after Nazarbayev’s 2019 resignation, appreciates the importance of continuous communication for healthy interstate relations.

In resource-deficient Kyrgyzstan, good relations with the neighbors are essential for economic survival and for the regime stability of current President Sadyr Japarov.

The only remaining post-Soviet strongman, Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan, also sees the benefits of cooperation, particularly as he is preoccupied with orchestrating a power transition to his, allegedly somewhat pro-Western, son. Local elites joke, “while knyaz’ya (dukes in Russian) fight, bayi (Central Asian landowners) will always find an agreement.” This time around the saying might actually hold ground.

Second, the current cooperative dynamics emanate from within the region itself. Such cooperation had been attempted in the 1990s, with an exclusively Central Asian grouping, the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (CACO). But it quickly became dysfunctional due to the young states’ bickering and lack of enforcement mechanisms, and was eventually absorbed by the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Community. 

Generally, the key regional organizations of Central Asia have long been initiated by powerful neighbors. Russia has aimed to promote economic integration through the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a grouping that has occasionally worsened the conditions for interstate commerce between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and which Uzbekistan has been politely declining to join. 

Another key regional grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), initiated by China and originally designated to resolve border disputes, has gone through significant organizational development to expand its functions, extended its membership outside of the region, and yet maintained its basic function as a discussion forum with little institutional capacity.

Both Russia and China are still strongly grounded in Central Asia. However, Russia is bogged down in Ukraine, and projects sponsored by Russia have often aimed to fill gaps in the region’s deteriorating infrastructure rather than to recover and enhance regional potential. China, in turn, has often been prevented from completing initiatives of regional significance due to regional apprehensions about potential Chinese regional dominance, emanating both from the region and from Moscow. Central Asian leaders might have as well decided that god helps those who help themselves, and do so without burning any bridges.

The trend to work together within Central Asia is still fragile, as it depends on top-down diplomacy defined by the personalist regimes of the region. It was the same nature of the regimes, plagued by the insecurities of the previous leaders, that facilitated Central Asian fragmentation three decades ago. Nevertheless, as long as the leaders continue talking, there is indication that the electricity, as well as goods and people, will eventually begin to flow among the Central Asian states again, like the tumultuous waters of the Amu Darya river.