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

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.

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.

Full article: Russia’s Putin eyeing military dominance in Central Asia amid water quarrels (Registan)

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