A schematic of the Central Asia Power System (CAPS)

Lenin once famously declared that “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” In Central Asia, at least, once one of those pillars collapsed, so did the other.

Chapter 2 of my hypothetical book, Until Death Do Us Part, will be about Central Asia’s unified energy system. The energy story is similar – and indeed intimately related – to the region’s shared water resources and infrastructure, about which I blogged some weeks ago. Central Asia’s electricity and power-generation capacity and transmission networks were designed with utter disregard for the borders between Soviet Socialist Republics and controlled from by central planners. When the USSR collapsed and sovereignty (as well as the need to heat homes and fuel lights) devolved from Moscow to the capitals of the new Central Asian states. Havoc ensued.

After the USSR’s dissolution, as scholars tried to understand both what was happening and what had happened in the countries of the former Soviet Union, the academics Blanchard and Kremer hit upon the simple but powerful concept of “disorganization.” Their argument, fleshed out in a 1997 article under the name of their principle, was that the Soviet collapse caused a decentralization of bargaining between buyers and suppliers. WIthout Moscow controlling which widgets went to which producers at what price, two things happened: a) the market began to rationalize itself, necessarily causing harm to the more irrational elements of the Soviet economy; and b) those aspects of the market that could not spontaneously rationalize began to collapse. Stories abound about remote factories being marooned and then cannibalized for parts because their location made no economic sense. This effectively describes what happened to Central Asia’s electricity system – except the countries had no alternative but to force the disorganized system to work.

Lenin’s project to electrify the Soviet Union (the “GOELRO plan,” from the Russian name for the State Commission for Electrification of Russia) began in 1920. Over time, the Unified Energy System (UES) was constructed, linking most all of the Soviet Union. And it was built to maximize efficiency. The UES joined together regional grids with some of the heaviest-duty transmission lines ever made, and the regional grids were planned on the principle of ease of construction rather than Republican borders. Mind you, this made sense in the Soviet Union. Thus when you look at the map of the Central Asia Power System (CAPS) above, you see that northern Kazakhstan is highly connected to southern Russia, but to southern Kazakhstan by only one line. Moreover, Southern Kazakhstan’s grid, like those of all of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, were controlled from Tashkent, the in Uzbekistan. When these territories all became independent states, Tashkent had a lot of power.

The system muddled along for a while, but finally began to seriously break down in 2009. In that year, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan accused Tajikistan of siphoning electricity illegally, and thereafter opted out of the CAPS. However, “sealing” national infrastructures could only be done with nominal effectiveness. Parts of Southern Kazakhstan still share the Uzbek grid, and Uzbekistan’s withdrawal stranded Tajikistan – all of the energy for which has to run through Uzbekistan.

In Kazakhstan, this has resulted in some inconveniences, although Almaty sometimes seems to be isolated to the greatest extent possible from all inconveniences. Instead, southern Kazakhstani cities occasionally go through periods of electricity shortages, especially in the cold winter months. Tensions flared again this winter, which was particularly cold here as it was also in Europe, when Kazakhstan accused Uzbekistan of taking more than its fair share – the same accusation earlier leveled at Tajikistan.

And it is poor Tajikistan that suffers the most from this mess. Friends there tell me they get a few hours of electricity a day, and this despite the fact that Tajikistan might have one of the largest power-generation potentials per capita of any country in the world (hydropower potential). However, the small, mountainous country, was given a raw deal by the CAPS. Mountains divided Tajikistan’s grid into two unjoined parts, each of which originates in and can be manipulated by Uzbekistan. A few years back, Uzbekistan scuttled an agreement between Turkmenistan and Tajikistan by disallowing the Turkmen energy swap to transit Uzbekistan.

Today, all the countries of Central Asia are striving for energy self-sufficiency as a key component of national security. The link is obvious when you consider a case like Tajikistan. However, numerous analyses have demonstrated that all the countries would gain from efficiencies of scale (among other benefits) were they to operate cooperatively as they were forced to do under the Soviet Union (but with important additional market principles – like pricing energy resources). Instead, most of Central Asia perseveres in its state of disorganization and rolling blackouts. Hopefully time and practice will bring some maturity to the region’s energy trade relations.


I originally hoped to publish the below piece with another online Central Asia news and opinions site. That didn’t work out. It is therefore slightly out of date, but I wanted to share it here nonetheless.

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An incidental development in the anti-Putin protests in Moscow may have lasting implications for cultural connections between Russia and Kazakhstan.

Following Putin’s inauguration as president for a third term, and in a continuation of earlier protests, thousands in Moscow have taken to the streets. Several incidents last week ended in violence between police and protesters, and on 9 May two of the opposition’s leaders, Aleksei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov, were arrested. Prior to his arrest, however, Navalny used Twitter to rally supporters to Moscow’s Chistye Prudy Park for an Occupy-style sit-in.

The crowd that gathered at Chistye Prudy took the name “OccupyAbai” after the nearby statue of the 19th century Kazakh poet-philosopher Abai Qunanbaiuli. To the Occupiers, the statue did not have any significance except as a geographic marker. Announcing the protest location, Navalny Tweeted that he was “going to #chistiyeprudy to the monument of an obscure Kazakh poet” ( An AP reporter later described the “OccupyAbai” name as “a random choice” (

Abai is anything but obscure in Kazakhstan. His statue stands at the end of a main thoroughfare bearing his name. His poetry is still widely read, and Mukhtar Auezov’s novels Abai and The Path of Abai are modern classics of Kazakh literature. Moreover, were one so inclined, one could draw out resonances in the Moscow opposition’s choice of name. Like those in Chistye Prudy, Abai too wanted modernization and reform in his country.

That Navalny was ignorant of Abai illustrates the gulf that divides the formerly fraternal Soviet peoples, and especially the remove Muscovites feel from those in Russia’s former Central Asian colonies. Ironically, the statue was unveiled in 2006 by Putin and Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev as a symbol of the close cultural ties between their two countries. Those ties were evidently weak. But by and large, this is true in only one direction. It is hard to imagine a Kazakh as educated as Navalny not knowing Pushkin. Nonetheless, the lack of a cultural dialog leads to unpredictable interpretations of the signals being sent. Even as Kazakhs watch events in Moscow, they are reaching different conclusions about their significance.

On 11 May, #OccupyAbai was trending as the third most popular topic on Twitter globally and the first among the Russian-language Tweets. People were interested in the “unknown Kazakh.” Indicative of the different attitudes now prevailing in the two countries, this was not viewed as a bridge between the protest spirit in Moscow and any analogous feelings in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh Internet space seems more interested in the good PR for the country: one commentator of speculates on the increase in book sales; Murat Izhanov, proprietor of, wrote that this was an opportunity to popularize Kazakh culture.

In light of the Arab Spring, many in Kazakhstan have been wondering if the protest spirit in Moscow will spread. If the revolution will be Tweeted and Internet ephemera are a barometer of societal moods, then anyone hoping for a Central Asian Spring should not hold his breath. The cultural divide between Russia and Kazakhstan appears to be acting as a firebreak.

However, the OccupyAbai incident is spurring a cultural rapprochement with potential consequences for the future. Now that Navalny and Udaltsov are in prison, some reports suggest Abai has become the figurehead of the protest movement; others have begun referring to the protesters as the “independent government of Abai-stan” ( Protesters are also beginning to find inspiration in Abai’s poetry. One line in particular is being frequently quoted: “The worst man from any number of men is the man without convictions” (my translation). The longer Muscovites and Kazakhs consider this sentiment together, the more likely it is that future popular movements in Russia will find deeper resonance in Kazakhstan. Such concerns aside, though, the joint appreciation of Abai may be the first step in a greater sharing of cultural touchstones between these two neighboring countries.

The artificial Nurek Reservoir in Tajikistan. Not my photograph. I've not been to Tajikistan yet.

If I ever write a book about Central Asia, I will title it Until Death do Us Part. Before I came here (and still now to an extent), I generalize about “Central Asia.” This is similar to talking about East Asia or Western Europe as regions: it masks intra-regional differences and conflicts. But generalizations about Central Asia are particularly insidious because common knowledge about the region is insufficient to mitigate against gross over-simplification. When a comment is made about “The Middle East,” our minds account for differences we know exist between Israel, Iran and Egypt. This does not happen with regards to “the ‘Stans.”

The trouble is that “the ‘Stans” really don’t like the neighborhood in which they are grouped. Turkmenistan does not even consider itself part of Central Asia, preferring instead to associate with the Iranian / Persianate worlds (whatever those are), and the other countries can barely cooperate.

It is therefore unfortunate that there are real, and not merely rhetorical, connections between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan that justify – even necessitate – the regional grouping of these countries into “Central Asia” (or “West Asia,” as I understand the Australians now call it). Primary among these ties that bind are shared water resources. Generally speaking, water resources (i.e. water – and rivers in which hydropower dams can be built) are concentrated and abundant in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but sorely needed in the dry agricultural countries of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan – and also in Turkmenistan, which is so desiccated that it imports 98% of its water. On the other hand, the upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) have practically no source of power and hardly any exports to speak of beyond hydropower.

The Soviets had a good solution to the division of resources and differentials in demand: the nerve-center of the command economy – Gosplan, based in Moscow – decreed each year that the upstream countries would allow the necessary amount of water to flow through its hydropower stations in the summer even though electricity was in low demand during this months. The goal was to provide the cotton and wheat-growing downstream countries sufficient water for irrigation. So single minded were the Soviets in reaching this goal that the Aral Sea has all but disappeared since the 1960s.

Map of the Syr Darya, which runs east to west through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan (again) and Kazakhstan before "reaching" the Aral Sea.

Meanwhile, the upstream countries need electricity for heating in the winter months and demanded compensation for the power generation capacity foregone by allowing the water to flow through the dams in the summer months. Again, Moscow decreed that the downstream countries, which also happen to be rich in “firm”, fossil-fuel energy resources, would burn oil and coal in the winter to meet demand in the upstream countries.

This complicated system prioritized the uneconomic and highly wasteful agricultural industries in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. To this end, Moscow treated all of Central Asia as one political and economic unit, even though technically the region was composed of five “independent” Soviet republics. And it worked, more or less.

It stopped working, however, when the USSR collapsed and the five countries were in fact independent of each other and fiercely nationalistic to boot. Unfortunately, the two major rivers that run through Central Asia – the Amu Darya and Syr Darya – did not change their course to accommodate the new international borders. The Kyrgyz government wants to store water and run hydropower plants in the winter to provide heat to citizens; the Uzbeks and Kazakhs need water in the summer growing months to support their crops. Tajikistan has essentially the same conflict of interests with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Untangling the mess of demands upon the water and of the states upon each other has proven challenging, time consuming and costly. All the major international donor organizations are involved, but the governments in Ashgabat, Astana, Bishkek, Dushanbe and Tashkent do not see eye-to-eye on fundamental issues: who has priority rights to use the water, how to price water resources, even whether water resources should have a price at all. Islam dictates that water is a gift from God to be shared. This is all well and good if you’re Uzbek and want water, but since the Quran does not say as much about oil and gas, the Kyrgyz still have to buy, at world market prices, their heating energy from the downstream countries.

I must admit to being sympathetic to each country’s claims. It is not a question of absolute right and wrong, and although perhaps not to equal degrees, all these countries are dependent upon each other. With so much at stake, however, it is understandably hard for the governments to cooperate. How this fascinating question gets resolved is undeniably going to shape the future development of “Central Asia.” This set of disputes might be the most likely cause of new war of which you, my reader, have probably never heard. Hopefully, however, the regional governments can keep a lid on things.