On September 18 and 19 representatives of the Central Asian ministries of energy met in Almaty to discuss regional energy cooperation. The first round of negotiations was held on September 9 and 10 but failed to produce any agreement among the participating states, because of Kyrgyzstan’s disagreement with Uzbekistan’s request to recognize the trans-border status of the Syr Darya River. This time the Uzbek delegation did not show up. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan agreed to sell electricity to Kyrgyzstan this winter to ameliorate its rapidly unfolding energy crisis.
Although the Kyrgyz government secured energy imports from neighboring states, it is still facing swelling pressure from its opponents and the public. As winter approaches, rolling blackouts are raising more concerns among the local population in Kyrgyzstan. Urban and rural residents complain about interruptions to their businesses due to shortages of electricity. The government’s changing of three-phase into one-phase capacitors is met with stern opposition by the populace, sometimes leading to a thrashing of government employees. Theft of electric transmitting equipment is increasing during the regular blackouts, further exacerbating the intermittent provision of electricity. Sometimes blackouts last more than ten hours a day.
The Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), a parliamentary minority, has demanded that Prime Minister Igor Chudinov report how and why the government has allowed such a crisis to occur (Delo Nomer, September 17). At the parliamentary hearings on September 9 Chudinov was asked why the water level had decreased from 2005 to 2008 in the Toktogul reservoir, Kyrgyzstan’s main hydro-energy site. According to MPs, in October 2005 the water level in the reservoir was roughly 19 billion cubic meters, while by April of this year it had dropped as low as 6.4 billion cubic meters. Importantly, the hydro-energy production level has remained the same (Delo Nomer, September 17). These data reveal that large volumes of hydroelectricity were either stolen or lost in the process. Chudinov himself blames the previous regime for unprofessional management of resources and high losses (up to 40 percent) endured by the sector in the production process.
Several other political leaders are showing more muscle in criticizing the government for embezzling revenue from the hydro-energy sector, which had led to the present crisis. Bakyt Beshimov, an SDPK member of parliament, accused the current regime of artificially creating the crisis, arguing that even when the water level in the Toktogul reservoir was high enough, there was not sufficient electricity delivered to the public because of corruption within that sector (www.24.kg, September 24). One regional energy expert told Jamestown that the current crisis was a straightforward result of continuing corruption in the hydroelectric sector that is being revealed after years of concealment. Another Kyrgyz expert and former political activist told Jamestown that although the opposition knew about the looming crisis, its leaders, including those of the SDPK, made little attempt to voice public concern. The opposition became louder when the crisis became almost inevitable.
The growing energy crisis is prompting public debate about the hydro-energy sector, putting its managers and particularly President Kurmanbek Bakiyev and Minister of Energy Saparbek Balkibekov under public scrutiny. The first active discussions of a looming crisis in the hydro-energy sector appeared in the Bely Parokhod opposition newspaper in late 2005 and were later picked up by several other news outlets. Today, local newspapers report on the issue from a variety of perspectives, from an examination of corruption in the energy sector to local peoples’ everyday survival with the lack of electricity. Several mass media outlets are making attempts to find reasons for its occurrence.
Meanwhile Bakiyev is promising that the crisis will end soon and Kyrgyzstan will be able to export hydro-energy again thanks to the completion of Kambarata-1 hydro-energy plant on the Naryn River. It remains unclear, however, when the plant will be able to function and who will invest in its construction. This year, imports of energy remain the only option to keep the Toktogul reservoir functioning. Kyrgyzstan has concluded a deal with Turkmenistan to import one billion kwh of electricity this winter in addition to imports of 250 million kwh from Kazakhstan. Besides electricity, both Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan will supply natural gas and other energy and construction materials to Kyrgyzstan. With this help Kyrgyzstan’s crisis might be milder, yet more investigation is necessary to reveal the root of the problem.