New Kyrgyz Power Plant Changing Political Landscape In Central Asia? – OpEd
By Kuat Dombay
The presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are set to launch a new $1.4 billion Kambarata power plant signaling a new epoch of regional political architecture that does not include Russia.
When in 2018 I first visited Osh, the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan and home to the world’s historical heritage of Great Moguls and sacred Solomon Mountain, which is believed to be the last resort of souls before they go to heaven or hell, there was another relic that diverted my trip – a giant monument of Lenin standing right in the middle of the Osh central square.
Such Soviet era symbols cannot be found in other Central Asian countries nowadays, especially in downtown locations. Communist symbols were removed in those countries a long time ago while they were building their independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. When driving through Kyrgyzstan from the north via the capital Bishkek in the center further to the south, it is surprising how many Soviet propaganda relics are still preserved.
It took me a while to consider why this is still the case. One of the reasons comes from another observation – the largest buildings constructed since Kyrgyzstan’s independence in 1991 would be the same Soviet era giant crop storage facilities or abandoned plants.
Kyrgyzstan found itself on the backyard of foreign direct investments pouring in the region in the last 30 years, 70% of which were absorbed by the oil-rich Kazakhstan, and much of the rest by the now rapidly developing Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan with its 6 million people has been mostly among the recipients of international humanitarian aid along with Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Little economic impetus or strategic direction, widespread corruption and political instability resulted in almost 1 million of Kyrgyz men and women (i. e. every third economically active person) is currently in labor emigration abroad.
Apart from economic dependence, with estimated over 60% of Kyrgyz labor emigrants working in Russia, this brings certain political pressures as well – under persistent demands from Russian president Vladimir Putin, the Kyrgyz government closed an American base in their country in 2014 despite the fact that the U.S. provided the Kyrgyz government with much needed funds for allowing American forces to transit to Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan then joined the Moscow-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, and the country now hosts one of the largest Russian military bases abroad just 12.4 miles (20 km) away from Bishkek.
The presence of foreign military bases in Kyrgyzstan could be partially explained by their feeling of insecurity. This mountainous and relatively small country is land-locked and surrounded by much larger neighbors, such as China, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, while relations with Tajikistan are sour. Violent fights with guns and mortars are becoming appallingly regular, with the last one happening just last September which resulted in the death of 122 people on both sides. This is despite the fact that both countries are members of the same defense alliance with Russia.
But this doomsday trajectory for Kyrgyzstan now seems to be finally taking a positive curve. It started with China’s Belt and Road project, which resulted in building top class highways across the country. In 2020 China surpassed Russia as the largest foreign investor accounting for 43.7% of all FDI in the country. Now, the governments are actively discussing building a new railroad for transiting Chinese goods further to Iran and Europe.
Another milestone development is the signing by the presidents of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan of an agreement to build a $1.4 billion new hydro powerplant in Kambarata, which is perhaps even more important politically since it can alleviate popular feelings of mistrust and insecurity among the Kyrgyz people.
The Kambarata hydro power plant was initially designed by Soviet engineers in the late 1980’s, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union it was never realized, except for partial construction of a phase-2 dam and the launch of one out of three projected 120 megawatts turbines in 1986. The whole Kambarata project, if completed, is huge in technical scale and economic significance for the country. Its projected total capacity is over 2,000 megawatts and will convert Kyrgyzstan from net importer of electric energy into its leading exporter in Central Asia. With estimated low cost at 5.15 cents per kilowatt, it is also a completely green generator of energy and will bring an additional $234 million annually to the stringent state budget. Combined with other hydro power stations of mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the governments could then launch another ambitious project developed with the EU named CASA-1000, which entails building a 1.200 km power grid to deliver greatly needed electricity to energy hungry Afghanistan and North Pakistan.
Completing the Kambarata project has always been a key priority for Kyrgyz presidents, especially in their negotiations with the Kremlin. There were numerous promises from the Russian side, which were sometimes used as a trade-off for entering the Eurasian Economic Union or outing the US military base. Yet these talks never resulted in any large-scale development.
The situation has radically changed in 2022 when the new presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan signed committed to provide needed investment to Kyrgyzstan build the power plant. Three countries are becoming shareholders with 33% belonging to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan each and 34% to the Kyrgyz Government. If implemented successfully within the next 3-4 years, it will mean another political milestone in deepening cooperation with Kyrgyzstan’s direct neighbors, without the involvement of Russia.
Seeing new modern Chinese roads and the establishment of the huge Kambarata power plant thanks to Kazakh and Uzbek investments will symbolize for the people of Kyrgyzstan the value of independence versus Soviet era nostalgia. It will translate into historical and psychological transformation and understanding that prosperity lies in cooperation with immediate neighbors. As for sanctioned and economically weakening Russia this would signify the end of its two-century dominance in Central Asia. In a few years we might finally see farewells to the last of Lenin’s monuments in Central Asia.
Kuat Dombay is a Kazakh political analyst