Amid shortages of hydro-energy in Kyrgyzstan because of the critically low water level in the Toktogul reservoir, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s loyal supports are finger-pointing, accusing each other of false reports and corruption. Previously, it was mostly the opposition that criticized Minister of Energy Saparbek Balkibekov for mismanaging the hydro-energy sector. Today, however, members of the pro-regime Ak Zhol party are voicing their doubts about Balkibekov’s competence in leading the country through the crisis.
In October Balkibekov promised that the rolling blackouts would not continue into November. With up to ten hours of blackouts each day and forced to stock up coal for the forthcoming winter, the public greeted the minister’s declaration cheerfully. A few days later, however, Balkibekov changed his tune, saying that instead of rolling blackouts, electricity would be shut off at certain addresses according to a schedule. Even political leaders, including MPs, had taken Balkibekov’s earlier promise literally, without analyzing the actual situation in the hydroelectric sector. Yet, despite imports of electricity from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, eliminating blackouts completely without driving Toktogul reservoir into a catastrophic condition would not be possible.
Today, the water level in the Toktogul reservoir is 950 million cubic meters, while a year ago it was 13.5 million cubic meters. The current crisis was caused by several factors, including a low-water period that takes place every 10 to 12 years; but despite predictions of low water, corrupt management of the hydro-energy sector continued. Even during the crisis over the past few months, hydro-energy has continued to be sold illegally by top-ranking government officials.
One of the government’s proposed solutions is to increase the load at the Bishkek TETs-1 thermal energy station by 50 percent over its normal 800 million kwh capacity during the cold months. According to Kyrgyz experts, however, TETs-1 is in a catastrophically poor condition and needs major reconstruction. It is questionable whether the station would be able to bear the increased load.
At a government meeting on November 12, Balkibekov outlined five strategies to help Kyrgyzstan survive the winter period: careful distribution of electricity; increased production of electricity at thermal power stations; importation of electricity from neighboring states; an increase of coal reserves for the public’s use; and adaptation of public buildings for alternative types of energy (www.akipress.kg, November 12). Balkibekov also called on citizens to save energy, by using fewer electric appliances at home. Since ordinary consumers are accustomed to the uncontrolled use of electricity because of its low cost and view it as an abundant resource, Balkibekov’s calls for action are unlikely to change public behavior drastically.
All these strategies had already been announced in the summer, testifying to Balkibekov’s lack of new ideas. Even members of Ak Zhol were disappointed in his report, some even calling for his resignation and investigation of the crisis in the energy sector. Other Ak Zhol members supported Balkibekov, arguing that he was a leading expert in his field. The reason for Ak Zhol’s protest against Balkibekov, a minister supported by the president, is the vertical structure of corruption in the hydro-energy sector, with only a few benefiting from illegal sales of electricity.
Balkibekov is not the only official involved in poor management of the hydro-energy sector. One Kyrgyz expert told Jamestown that Aleksey Shirshov, the former finance director of Elektricheskie Stantsii, is perhaps the main mastermind behind the corruption pyramids in the hydroelectric sector. Avoiding any public appearances, Shirshov previously worked with former president Askar Akayev. He was able to build schemes of shadow energy trade that would be invisible to both the wider public and representatives of the sector.
The current crisis has revealed that only a few people in the government and in public bodies are knowledgeable about the hydro-energy sector. The majority of public officials are only able to learn about developments in the sector from reports by the Ministry of Energy. Like the Toktogul reservoir, Bakiyev and Balkibekov’s promise to construct a Kambarat-2 hydroelectric power plant on the Naryn River is full of bogus statements. Contrary to Bakiyev’s promises, Kambarata-2 will not be able to function to its full extent without the completion of the Kambarata-1 plant (www.24.kg, October 31). Furthermore, although construction of the plant has started, the government has not revealed any working plans or estimated expenditures to the public. Bakiyev’s and Balkibekov’s promises, it seems, aim at deferring the frustration among the opposition and the public with the crisis.
The public unfortunately continues to believe the government’s promises, while expert criticism of hydro-energy sector management remains sporadic. The crisis has already split the Ak Zhol party. If Bakiyev and Balkibekov continue producing false reports, they might find themselves short of political support even among their closest allies.