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Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan
Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan
Report 233 / Europe & Central Asia

Water Pressures in Central Asia

Growing tensions in the Ferghana Valley are exacerbated by disputes over shared water resources. To address this, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan urgently need to step back from using water or energy as a coercive tool and focus on reaching a series of modest, bilateral agreements, pending comprehensive resolution of this serious problem.

Executive Summary

Water has long been a major cause of conflict in Central Asia. Two states – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – have a surplus; the other three say they do not get their share from the region’s great rivers, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya, which slice across it from the Tien Shan, Pamir Mountains, and the Hindu Kush to the Aral Sea’s remains. Pressures are mounting, especially in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The population in Central Asia has increased by almost ten million since 2000, and limited arable land is being depleted by over-use and outdated farming methods. Extensive corruption and failing infrastructure take further toll, while climate change is likely to have long-term negative consequences. As economies become weaker and states more fragile, heightened nationalism, border disputes, and regional tensions complicate the search for a mutually acceptable solution to the region’s water needs. A new approach that addresses water and related issues through an interlocking set of individually more modest bilateral agreements instead of the chimera of a single comprehensive one is urgently needed.

The root of the problem is the disintegration of the resource-sharing system the Soviet Union imposed on the region until its collapse in 1991. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan provided water to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in summer and received Kazakh, Turkmen and Uzbek coal, gas and electricity in winter. The system had broken down by the late-1990s, and a plethora of bilateral and regional agreements and resolutions concluded in that decade failed to fix it. The concerns Crisis Group identified in 2002 – inadequate infrastructure, poor water management and outdated irrigation methods – remain unaddressed, while the security environment is bleaker.

Regional leaders seem disinclined to cooperate on any of their main problems. Suspicion is growing between the most directly affected countries, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Personal relations between Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Uzbek President Islam Karimov have been icy for years, and Karimov and his ministers are increasingly prone to make bellicose statements. International partners, including Russia, the European Union (EU) and the U.S., say they can do little if the countries remain fixated on a narrow interpretation of national interests. Differences over upstream hydropower projects require intensive, high-level resolution. Though some localised efforts to improve water supply have worked, usually with donor aid, corruption has undermined more ambitious ones. Yet, the failure of the Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek governments to modernise water-dependent sectors such as energy and agriculture increases their mutual dependence.

For all its complexity, the water issue is probably the one that offers some opportunity for solution. As a Swiss water specialist observed, “water can be a driver of conflict but it can also be a driver of peace”. It is an objective problem, and equitable distribution and a concomitant energy exchange would produce tangible benefits for all. Removal of the water factor from the more intractable problems of borders and enclaves, meanwhile, might mitigate conflicts and perhaps even help solve them. Improved water infrastructure and management projects could thus be crucial for building peace and political stability, while promoting development and economic growth.

Attempts at comprehensive regional solutions have foundered on mistrust. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (and their international backers) should act now in the border areas of the Ferghana Valley to end the annual cycle of competition and conflict over water by dividing the water issue into more manageable portions – seeking gradual, step-by-step solutions along conceptual and geographical lines rather than one all-inclusive resource settlement. If Uzbekistan will not participate, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan should work bilaterally. Meanwhile, high-level mediation should be sought to address Uzbekistan’s objections to upstream hydropower projects.

There is no guarantee this would work, but it could give these three states an opportunity to modernise infrastructure and the management of water resources as well as train a new generation of technical specialists. The agreements would also set a modest precedent for other spheres in which cooperation is sorely needed and might help defuse tensions in the region, while improving the grim living conditions of most of its population.

Supporters of detained opposition politician Omurbek Tekebayev, the leader of the Ata-Meken party, hold a rally in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on 26 February 2017. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Warning Signs on the Road to Elections in Kyrgyzstan

Recent political protests in Kyrgyzstan signal the possibility of deeper trouble ahead of presidential elections in November. For the first time in the country’s pro-independence history, there is real competition for leadership in Central Asia’s only semi-functioning democracy.

What has led to the heightened political tensions in Kyrgyzstan?

On 26 February, authorities arrested Omurbek Tekebayev, the leader of the opposition party Ata-Meken, on charges of fraud and corruption. That incident sparked peaceful protests in Bishkek, including at the capital’s Ala-Too Square, the site of earlier demonstrations that ultimately led to the ouster of two presidents. The past week’s demonstrations were modest, however protests in Kyrgyzstan have previously started small and then snowballed. President Almazbek Atambayev’s government – and especially the judiciary – should ensure that its actions ahead of the November ballot are above reproach in order not to aggravate the already tense situation. Kyrgyzstan’s constitution limits the president to a single term in office, preventing Atambayev from running for re-election. All eyes are now on how the government and opposition conduct themselves.

Tekebayev has not declared interest in contesting the election, yet he was clearly an irritant to the president as in recent months he claimed the president’s wealth was hidden off-shore. Nevertheless, the manner of his arrest was an ill-advised demonstration of power bound to garner an angry reaction from the opposition. Tekebayev was reportedly detained at Bishkek’s international airport, at around 3 a.m. by officers in plainclothes. The next day, a court ordered him to be held for two months for alleged corruption. Two other members of Ata-Meken were detained in recent weeks as part of an alleged corruption investigation. Ata-Meken, established after the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been a permanent fixture on the political scene since with varying degrees of power and popularity. Tekebayev has held a series of high profile posts under previous administrations and has never been far from the headlines.

Tekebayev’s detention seems to fit a familiar pattern in Kyrgyzstan: arrests of opposition figures, lack of due process, allegations of corruption on both sides, dubious documents purporting to prove wrongdoing, and the apparent use of criminal investigations to settle political scores. Much of this is possible because political reform in Kyrgyzstan, while ahead of its authoritarian neighbours, has been superficially and selectively implemented.

Do you believe that the protests could spark a nationwide political crisis or trigger violence, as in 2005 and 2010?

The successive ousters of President Askar Akayev in 2005 and President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010 were traumatic events for the country. Some of the factors present then are absent today, such as widespread popular discontent with the head of state and his family. Yet President Atambayev’s strategy is risky. Popular opinion can turn if injustices are perceived. Atambayev needs to make sure there is a definitive marker between his administration and that of his predecessors. The arrests of opposition figures in an election year should be carefully weighed up against the perception that they are politically motivated and an abuse of power. The judiciary should ensure due process and impartiality.

The overthrow of two presidents never really revolutionized politics in Kyrgyzstan. Even after the spate of ethnic violence in Osh in 2010, Kyrgyzstan did not see the emergence of a new political elite less tainted by corruption. The country remains divided ethnically between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, and geographically between the north and south.

For many politicians and officials, it has been business as usual. Kyrgyzstan’s regions remain poor and underfunded, services are patchy at best, and corruption is rife at all levels of society. High unemployment is masked by migration, and there has been little economic development to speak of. The government attempts to paper over the cracks but has not mustered the political will to address difficult issues such as ethnic tensions, marginalization and exclusion. As a result, Kyrgyzstan remains politically fragile and prone to potential unrest.

What are the regional and geopolitical implications of uncertainty in Kyrgyzstan?

Kyrgyzstan is, in its own way, a democratic model in Central Asia, a region dominated by authoritarian states. Its neighbours often point to Kyrgyzstan as a chaotic place when in reality it is the only Central Asian republic that has attempted to dismantle the post-Soviet legacy of strong-man rule. Although the journey to democracy will continue to be a difficult one, the effort is laudable.

Russian influence continues to grow as the Kyrgyz government depends on Moscow for financial aid and security assistance. During a visit to Kyrgyzstan this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the importance of maintaining an air base in the country to ensure stability and security in the region. China is also a key strategic partner, and considers the country a useful gateway to Central Asia. Both Moscow and Beijing are concerned about any potential for wider unrest, the rise of Islamist groups and the threat of radicalisation in Kyrgyzstan. In August 2016, the Chinese embassy was targeted by a suicide car bomber – an attack that the government blamed on groups fighting in Syria.

The success or failure of Kyrgyzstan will have important regional implications. Kyrgyzstan’s legacy of violent upheaval should serve as a cautionary tale. The fear that it could happen again acts as a deterrent for some domestic actors, however the underlying causes that sparked previous electoral violence have not been addressed. In the past, Kyrgyzstan’s problems have been contained within its borders, but that can no longer be guaranteed. Neighbours Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan should be mindful that an orderly Presidential election is in their interests too.

What are the chances for a peaceful transition of power in 2017?

A peaceful transition is still possible, but much will depend on the actions of the government and opposition parties between now and November. The election should be an opportunity to strengthen democracy and stability, and could mark a milestone on Kyrgyzstan’s road towards political maturity. All political actors, and the government particularly, should be careful not to squander this opportunity for the sake of settling political scores.

The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe can play important roles by pushing for meaningful reforms now and over the longer term. In part, this means offering continued support for institution building. It will also require frank and timely discussions with the Kyrgyz government and political parties about how the upcoming presidential ballot – and the behaviour of the government and the opposition during the run-up to the election – will affect Kyrgyzstan’s credibility as a state moving, albeit tentatively, toward democracy.