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.