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Power Outage: Winter Is Starting To Look Colder And Darker For Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyz Energy Minister Doskul Bekmurzaev (second from right) is shown inspecting the Kara-Keche coal mine in the Naryn region in October 2021.
Kyrgyz Energy Minister Doskul Bekmurzaev (second from right) is shown inspecting the Kara-Keche coal mine in the Naryn region in October 2021.

People in Kyrgyzstan knew that a rough winter was coming.

But because Kyrgyzstan had deals to import electricity from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, it seemed to have solved some of its critical energy problems this winter.

Now all three of those countries recently stopped sending electricity to Kyrgyzstan and it is unclear if any of them will be able to help keep the lights on in Kyrgyzstan in the coming months.

A report on November 19 cited the Kyrgyz Energy Ministry as saying the country had already received all of the promised electricity from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan under the deals.

And there is another problem.

A severe drought has badly hurt the primary domestic source of energy for Kyrgyzstan, which is hydropower.

Kyrgyzstan will allow some water through its massive Toktogul hydropower plant (HPP) to generate some domestic electricity as it usually does during the winter. But water levels are already critically low and the country needs the reservoir to be as full as possible for other reasons.

Though the water is in a Kyrgyz reservoir, but it does not belong solely to Kyrgyzstan despite the protests of a few politicians who believe it should be considered a state commodity.

Downstream countries Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan depend on the water in the spring and summer for their vast agricultural fields.

The Toktogul HPP and reservoir is about 45 years old and when it was built during the Soviet era a scheme was devised whereby Kyrgyzstan stored water in the reservoir during the autumn and winter and released it during the agricultural season.

The Kazakh and Uzbek Soviet Republics provided electricity and natural gas to Kyrgyzstan during the autumn and winter, and during the spring and summer when the gates at the reservoir were opened wide, the four turbines at the Toktogul HPP provided electricity to parts of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

It was an arrangement that benefitted everyone, but that scheme fell apart after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

A series of negotiations then started between the independent states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan to try to come up with a new system of sharing power and ensuring water supplies.

The burden of maintaining Toktogul fell upon Kyrgyzstan and compensation from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was sometimes very lean.

Uzbekistan reduced or entirely turned off the gas supplies due to nonpayment, although many suspected it was also done for political reasons against Bishkek. Kazakhstan eventually agreed to send coal to Kyrgyzstan for the winter, but in a notorious incident in October 2011, coal from Kazakhstan’s Kolan mine that was sent to Kyrgyzstan turned out to be radioactive and the Kyrgyz had to retrieve it send it back to Kazakhstan.

Thirty years after independence, cooperation between the five Central Asian states is at an all-time high. As an example, parched Kyrgyzstan was relieved earlier this year when Uzbekistan pledged to export some 750 million kWh to Bishkek during the autumn-winter period and Kazakhstan promised 900 million kWh.

Though all of that electricity has been supplied to Kyrgyzstan, there is another source.

On November 11, the Kyrgyz Energy Ministry announced a deal to continue importing electricity from Turkmenistan, something that started for the first time since independence in August of this year.

The deal was long under consideration by both parties but impossible for many years due to the obstinance of former Uzbek leader Islam Karimov to allow Turkmen electricity to transit Uzbek territory on its way to Kyrgyzstan.

Such an arrangement would have threatened the leverage Tashkent had over Bishkek as the only gas provider to Kyrgyzstan, so Karimov simply refused his country’s transit services in the Turkmen-Kyrgyz electricity agreement.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev meeting with supporters after the October 2021 presidential election in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev meeting with supporters after the October 2021 presidential election in Uzbekistan.

When Shavkat Mirziyoev became Uzbek president in late 2016, he quickly worked to improve ties with all of Uzbekistan’s neighbors, including Kyrgyzstan.

But during the years Karimov was in power, the high-voltage transmission lines connecting Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan had fallen into decay and it was only recently that replacement and repair work was carried out.

Kyrgyzstan has not yet been forced to implement power rationing on households and the government is promising not to do that this winter.

But in late September, restrictions on electricity use were introduced for businesses and other nonhousehold objects.

Tajikistan has supplied electricity to Kyrgyzstan in recent years but after the armed conflict between the two countries at the end of April, such an agreement was in doubt.

Recent talks between Bishkek and Dushanbe seemed to have yielded a breakthrough -- but in the end Tajikistan decided not to export electricity to Kyrgyzstan.

To be fair, Tajikistan is even more dependent on hydropower than Kyrgyzstan, and Tajik authorities find themselves in the same predicament as Kyrgyzstan with not enough energy for domestic consumption.

To complicate matters for Kyrgyzstan, the electricity stopped flowing from Turkmenistan on November 15 due to an accident along the power line in Uzbekistan caused by a thick dust storm that hit Uzbekistan in early November.

It was of such importance that Kyrgyz Energy Minister Bekmurzaev said the same day he would travel to Uzbekistan to discuss the situation while also try to convince Uzbekistan to resume electricity exports.

Bekmurzaev also said negotiations were ongoing with other countries for electricity imports, specifically naming Russia.

The power-line problem in Uzbekistan will reportedly soon be repaired and Turkmen electricity should resume flowing to Kyrgyzstan.

But there appear to be other problems on the horizon.

With the possible exception of Turkmenistan, all of the Central Asian countries are experiencing domestic power problems and it is early in the season.

Depending on how large these domestic power problems become, it could soon turn into a situation where the countries are unable to meet their own electricity needs and will have none to spare -- even for a neighbor.

And Kyrgyzstan cannot even pay for the electricity it is receiving right now.

The deals Kyrgyzstan has with its neighbors call for delayed repayment or a return of the electricity from Kyrgyzstan’s HPPs next summer.

Cash-strapped Turkmenistan might soon find this arrangement unappealing, especially if Iran asks to import more Turkmen electricity.

And Uzbekistan also has a deal to import Turkmen electricity. But if Tashkent is faced with crippling outages, as it was in January, the question will be: do Uzbek authorities allow the smooth transfer of the electricity bound for Kyrgyzstan or reroute some of it for Uzbekistan’s needs?

Certainly, the neighbors are showing a desire to help Kyrgyzstan through the winter, but Kyrgyzstan might need to temper its expectations as to how much help -- in the form of electricity -- will actually arrive.

RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, contributed to this report.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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