Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo March 26, 2009

Central Asia's Cold War Over Heat


Media file: 743.jpg

The global financial crisis is now reverberating deep inside the Tajikistans mountainous countryside...

author #1 image author #2 image
Multiple Authors
Tajikistan can't generate power when dams freeze, and the neighbours don't want to help. Image by Carolyn Drake. Tajikistan, 2009.

"This is why we have no electricity, no water," says Alovutdin Sololiev, waving at the broken-down traffic lights as he speeds into a major intersection, asserting a right of way not recognised by other drivers. His gesture extends from the dead signals to the belching little gas generators with rubber hoses, which colonise the pavements like a maze of octopuses stranded on cement. "Nobody wants to stop and figure out rules."

Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union almost 20 years ago, most of Tajikistan – including big cities like Khojand – has little access to electricity or running water for the majority of the year. Tajikistan generates electricity from hydroelectric dams, which don't work when the country's alpine lakes freeze during winter months. Without electricity, the country can't run the Soviet-era pump technology that delivers clean water to cities, villages, and farms.

Central Asia's political problems compound Tajikistan's resource problems. A deal it struck this winter to buy electricity from neighbouring Turkmenistan, for example, was terminated by Uzbekistan, which controls a critical piece of the grid between the two countries. The governments of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are currently having back-room talks, according to diplomats in the region, but the two countries have long been engaged in a resource-driven cold war. Each side has multiple grievances against the other, but key among them are Tajikistan's demands that Uzbekistan supply its energy and Uzbekistan's demand that Tajikistan release more water downstream.

The volatile resource conflict flares beyond Tajikistan across Central Asia, the massive centre of the Eurasian continent which stretches into Russia. However, unlike Europe's recent energy crises, which were rooted in Russia's foreign policy goals, Central Asia's energy issues are mostly homegrown. The region is rich in oil and gas – and in Tajikistan, rich in water – but hampered by state rivalries, quixotically drawn borders, authoritarian modes of government and daunting pipeline problems informed by geographical isolation and crippling geopolitical calculations.

While the problems begin at home, Russia's role in the politics of energy in Central Asia is starting to grow. "Russia in various ways has started to insert itself into these intra-regional power conflicts," says Katherine Hardin, senior director for Russia and Caspian research at Cambridge Energy Research Associates, an energy consultancy in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Russia is Central Asia's major customer for natural gas and weakening demand from Europe is likely to affect gas deliveries to Russia, said Hardin.

Russia sells Europe all the gas Europe will buy, gaining foreign currency and profit in the process, but it doesn't have enough gas to meet both European and domestic demand. Russia therefore buys Central Asian gas on the cheap, using its control of the supply route to Europe as a bargaining chip to demand low prices, and then marks up the gas and re-exports it to Europe. Slackening European demand for gas means Russia can meet most of Europe's needs with its own gas supplies, and that has pushed down demand for Central Asian gas. That, in turn, could jeopardise a large portion of some Central Asian governments' revenues. "It's interesting to me that we're seeing Gazprom sticking itself into the region, and to ask how that will play out," said Hardin.

Russian economic difficulties are poised to exacerbate the region's resource conflict. The global financial crisis imperils the payments from Russia on which Central Asia relies, potentially destabilising regimes, expanding powerful criminal networks, and disrupting Nato strategies in Afghanistan, which shares a long northern border with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In a recently released report widely cited by Western diplomats here, the International Crisis Group concluded that there is a risk of social unrest in Tajikistan, and that the country is no longer a "bulwark against the spread of extremism and violence from Afghanistan."

Back in Khojand, Sololiev drives his car through the city's dangerously laissez-faire intersections to pick up home repair supplies. His visit to Tajikistan is a brief one: he has returned from a job as a construction worker in Russia to spend March with his family, but plans to return to Russia next month, when he hopes Russia's massive building spree will resume. This pattern of work is not uncommon. More than a million Tajik migrants work in Russia's seasonal construction industry, as well as in Russian factories and in its agriculture sector. According to the International Monetary Fund, half of Tajikistan's GDP is derived from the income of workers in Russia.

Tajikistan has almost no jobs to offer returning migrant workers. Sololiev knows of only two factories in Khojand, Tajikistan's second largest city: a spirits factory, and an Italian-Tajik jeans manufacturing co-venture. The government has promised to hire 5,000 workers to build one of two new planned dams, but wages are expected to be low. The energy problem, meanwhile, has encouraged an across-the-board lack of business investment. Money from pay cheques have been poured into home repairs and used cars imported from Russia and Europe, but without electricity in winter, few returning migrants have started new businesses.

"How can I work in Tajikistan without electricity? I have to go back to Russia. Whether there is work in Russia for me is something I can't think about. Let the Russians think about it," said Sololiev, still driving his car, newly purchased.



navy halftone illustration of a halved avocado


Food Security

Food Security

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues