Russia’s Putin eyeing military dominance in Central Asia amid water quarrels

by Elmurad Kasym on 10/9/2012

Water wars

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are landlocked and mountainous countries—75% and 90%, respectively—in Central Asia. The countries’ mountains provide abundance of potable water, which feed the two major rivers of Central Asia.  The scarcity of other natural resources understandably results in Bishkek’s and Dushanbe’s attempts to use the water more wisely—building hydropower plants (HPP) for generating electricity.  Dushanbe is aiming at erecting the tallest dam in the world—a 335-meter (about 1,000 feet) tall concrete wall on the Vakhsh River (turns into Amu-Darya River).  Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, is securing Russia’s backing in building a 275-meter dam on the Naryn River (turns into Syr-Darya River).

The two countries want to build power generators within their own boundaries and ideally no problem should arise.  However, because the two rivers in question further flow into Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the latter two are strongly opposing the plans.  Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, both occupying their seats for over two decades, worry that housing water upstream behind dams will decrease water supply and damage crop fields downstream.  The wariness has been voiced for several years, but it looks like Uzbek President Islam Karimov is getting more nervous.  During his recent two-day visit to Astana, Kazakhstan, President Karimov was quite unequivocal: “I won’t name specific countries, but all of this [the issue of dams] could deteriorate to the point where not just serious confrontation, but even wars could be the result,” Reuters quotes him as saying.  Other than that, according to President Karimov, an earthquake could rip the dam open and flush the water downstream.

President Karimov’s worries are justified, since his country benefits from both rivers’ waters.  Being the 6th largest cotton producer in the world (some 1m tons harvested last year), Uzbekistan needs to provide its fields with irrigation waters.  Besides, Tashkent purifies water in the two rivers for the population’s consumption.  With Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan planning to decrease water discharge in this arid part of the world, President Karimov had to choose harsh words, apparently, to warn its two weakest regional neighbors.

What is even more curious is that the warming was issued two weeks ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Kyrgyzstan.  The heads of state inked agreements, which provide for a joint construction and exploitation of the Kambar-Ata HPP (over 1,500 MW) and the Verkne-Naryn cascade of HPPs (Akbulun, Naryn-1, Naryn-2 and Naryn-3; combined capacity – 282 MW; expected to reach 1 billion kWh/year).  Building a series of dams will significantly decrease amounts of water discharged.  Hence Kyrgyzstan will obtain some form of leverage in negotiating with Uzbekistan over its natural gas prices, which have been volatile lately with Tashkent’s insistence that Bishkek buy it at international rates.  Kyrgyz might also have some power in negotiating with Uzbekistan concerning porous borders, which Tashkent tends to close unilaterally when it is deemed necessary.

Reestablishing Russian military dominance

The HPPs issue is only a background item on President Putin’s agenda in Kyrgyzstan.  Another a very important point was the Russian military air base in Kyrgyzstan.  Six hundred Russian servicemen are present at the base ready to fly several Su-25 fighter aircraft and Mi-8 helicopters parked only 20 kilometers (over 10 miles) away from Bishkek.  This military base’s importance is only gaining momentum with the extension of its presence on the one hand, and the US-led coalition’s base lease ending by 2014.  Presidents Putin and Atambayev signed a joint agreement, which provides for extending the Kant-based Russian base’s lease for another 15 years as of 2017, training for Kyrgyz servicemen by Russian counterparts and delivery of Russian-made arms and weapons to the Kyrgyz army.

It is in light of all these events that one concludes President Karimov’s warning of a “water war” was carefully timed.  Voiced prior to President Putin’s visits to Kyrgyzstan and later to Tajikistan, President Karimov wants to convince his counterparts to act rationally.  But feeling Putin’s backing, President Atambayev is rather straightforward in saying “Russia will protect us in case a country or terrorists act aggressively toward Kyrgyzstan.”  On the one hand, with this statement, President Atambayev is fully submitting his country’s defense potential to the Russian command.  On the other hand, the only country President Atambayev could be sending a message to is Uzbekistan.  Of all four Kyrgyz neighbors, only Uzbekistan could be motivated to “act aggressively” because of reasons stated above: China would not cause itself an unnecessary headache by assaulting a tiny country whose capital once hosted a counterterrorism center of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; Tajikistan is in the same boat with Kyrgyzstan (and President Putin is visiting this country early October); and Kazakhstan is too close to Russia politically and economically to afford itself such an act.

On the other side of the issue, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan not only want but also need Russia’s help.  The Verkne-Naryn cascade will generate enough energy that Bishkek will be able to provide electricity to its population that has suffered from power shortages and blackouts since the former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, gained power in a revolution in 2005.  Bishkek has also been actively lobbying the issue of selling electricity to Kazakhstan under the previous Babanov government.  Excessive electricity can also be used for compensating the shortage of natural gas bought from Uzbekistan.  The second party willing to harness the hydropower is Tajikistan, whose impoverished population prefers living and working in Russia rather than at home.  Physically close to volatile Afghanistan, Tajikistan is part of the New Silk Road project the US Department of State is proposing.  According to the project, products and goods from Central Asia will be delivered to Southeast Asia via Afghanistan, thus engaging the latter.  Given that the Kyrgyz part of the project will cost around 6-8b USD and the Roghun around 4-6b USD, which Russia is willing to loan.  Thus, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will enormously benefit economically and obtain some leverage politically.

It is therefore no surprise that President Karimov is trying to discourage Atambayev and Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon from pursuing projects, since it be detrimental to his country’s economy and consequently loosen his grip on power.  But Moscow, too, has plans for the “near abroad.”  When Uzbekistan suspended its membership in the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in June 2012, President Karimov chose Washington over Moscow.  The US-led anti-terrorism coalition is winding down its mission in Afghanistan in two years and has been actively cooperating with Uzbekistan in transporting/withdrawing troops and ammunition.  Given deteriorating relations with Pakistan, a major route for supplying troops in Afghanistan, for various reasons, the Pentagon has been heavily relying on the Northern Distribution Network (NDN).  Uzbekistan is a vital part of the NDN with its proximity to Afghanistan and access routes, which were once used by the Soviet Army to first invade and later withdraw from Afghanistan.  To be able to retain some of the transported NATO military equipment, Tashkent had to free itself from having to have to consult Moscow, i.e. leave the CSTO.  The Kremlin has absorbed the blow, but did not forget it, of course.

It is, therefore, trying to regain its former military presence and influence in the region.  Coupled with the Russian 201st Division in Tajikistan, whose lease continuation negotiations are underway, Russia is trying to bolster its footprint in the region.  Given Russia’s on-and-off engagement in assisting Dushanbe with the Roghun HPP, President Putin seems resolute in “conquering” Central Asia back piece by piece.  Given the NATO troops withdrawal, Beijing’s non-interference and the regional countries’ need in external assistance, Russia has all the reasons to fully reassert its dominance in the region.  And tenuous liquid water seems to be a very solid and firm platform for doing so.

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This post was written by...

– author of 5 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Elmurad Kasym holds a master's degree in International Security from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Kasym comments on Central Asia affairs and is currently based in Moscow.

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