Did Putin Play Dealmaker in Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan Gas Spat?
Whether or not Vladimir Putin bribed Uzbekistan, as a Bishkek newspaper claims, it is welcome news all around that Uzbek gas is once again flowing into southern Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan is happy because 60,000 customers in a potentially restive part of the country aren’t relying on dung to heat their homes; Uzbekistan again has revenue from the cross-border gas trade; and Russia, whose energy giant Gazprom promised a constant supply of gas when it bought Kyrgyzstan’s gas distribution network last year, gets to save face.
But the sudden resumption of gas deliveries from Uzbekistan to Kyrgyzstan on December 30 begs two related questions: Why wasn’t a deal reached earlier, after Uzbekistan abruptly cut supplies last April? And what made the recalcitrant Uzbeks change their mind?
Kyrgyz newspaper Vechernii Bishkek, citing an unidentified Kyrgyz government source, claims it knows the answer to the second question.
The source told Vechernii Bishkek today that no less a figure than Russian President Vladimir Putin negotiated the gas deal during a December 10 meeting with his counterpart Islam Karimov in Tashkent. Karimov, according to this account, pushed Moscow to forgive $3 billion of Uzbek debt (oddly, that’s much more than the $890 million other media reported Uzbekistan as owing). In the end the Kremlin agreed to write off $865 million.
“Uzbekistan insisted on the write-off of that debt in return for the gas from the very start. For this reason Tashkent refused to enter into any sort of negotiations with the Kyrgyz side” in the eight months between the shutoff and Putin’s visit, the source said. (Kyrgyz officials confirmed on multple occasions that their Uzbek counterparts weren't even taking their calls.)
Vechernii Bishkek claims the Kyrgyz government was left in the dark about the deal, which sounds plausible. In his end-of-year speech on December 27, President Almazbek Atambayev said an agreement with Uzbekistan was unreachable and claimed Kyrgyzstan would have to begin drilling to supply the south with gas.
So, why did the deal take so long to materialize? Many commentators have assumed Tashkent was holding out against Russian influence in the region. But the gas resumed flowing only a few days after Kyrgyzstan signed a treaty to join Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union—that is, cementing Russia’s influence over the restive Central Asian state. Signing bonus for Bishkek?
Vechernii Bishkek’s article drew skeptical comments from online readers doubting the validity of the paper’s sources. But others praised Putin – “the man” – for bringing gas back to southern Kyrgyzstan.
Chris Rickleton is a journalist based in Almaty.