Kazakhstan will be ready to provide infrastructure for the transit of Russian gas to Uzbekistan for the “autumn-winter 2024” once Tashkent and Moscow conclude negotiations over volume and price, Kazakhstan’s Energy Minister Almasadam Satkaliyev said this week. It’s the latest bit of news tied to the prospect of Russia exporting gas to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Despite being both producers and exporters of natural gas themselves, in recent winters Tashkent and Astana have run into energy crunches, squeezed between rising domestic demands and existing contracts with China, the gap exacerbated by aged infrastructure in some cases.
Although Kazakh and Uzbek officials chaffed at talk of a “gas union” with Russia in late 2022, the idea of importing gas from Russia itself had merit. In January, Gazprom signed “roadmaps” for cooperation with both the Kazakh and Uzbek governments. Details were thin about the roadmaps, but Uzbekistan said it would begin importing Russian gas on March 1.
In February, Uzbek Energy Minister Zhurabek Mirzamakhmudov and his Kazakh counterpart, Bolat Akchulakov (who in April was appointed a presidential adviser) met with Gazprom Chairman Alexey Miller in St. Petersburg and discussed “possibilities” of a trilateral gas arrangement.
Gazeta.uz reported that during the February meeting officials were considering routing gas through the Central Asia-Center (CAC) pipeline (which runs from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Russia) and the Bukhara-Ural pipeline, which runs from Uzbekistan through Kazakhstan to Russia.
A source told the Uzbek media outlet that in order to supply natural gas from Russia to the Central Asian states via the CAC pipeline, significant investments and new compressor stations would be necessary to allow for the reversal of the flow. And in late February, Kazakhstan announced that it planned to start work on a third line for the Bukhara-Ural pipeline, at an estimated cost of $95.6 million.
On March 1, the Uzbek Ministry of Energy said the country had not in fact begun importing Russian gas as no specific agreements had been reached. A few days earlier, Mirzamakhmudov had said it would be “practically impossible” to do so.
By April, it seemed that Uzbekistan was leaning toward the CAC route. Mirzamakhmudov said the Bukhara-Ural pipeline was not suitable because of its “deterioration.” Kazakhstan’s plans for a third line could return it to the running as a pathway, but not necessarily soon. It was also becoming more clear that Russia’s interest wasn’t so much supplying Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan but reaching China. A TASS report cited analysis by the Russian Energy Development Center, which contained the expectation that Gazprom “will be able to agree on the supply of up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, of which 4-6 billion cubic meters will be transit gas for China.”
In May, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev traveled to Xi’an for the first in-person summit of leaders from China and Central Asia. On May 22 Uzbekistan announced it had resumed exporting gas to China for the first time this year, exporting $40.47 million worth in April. Soon after, on May 30, Mirzamakhmudov seemed to pump the brakes on the Russian plan, commenting that within the roadmap framework, the sides were still studying the possibilities and resolving technical issues. “As soon as the technical issues are resolved, we will discuss commercial terms,” he said.
The last few months have featured glimpses of progress but also clear illustrations of the difficulties at hand, ranging from the technical and economic, arguably to the political. Uzbekistan is in a prime bargaining position, and it seems Tashkent knows it. What Uzbekistan needs — enough gas to cover domestic winter shortages without having to go back on promises to China — is something Russia can supply. And now that it’s nearly summertime, Uzbekistan can safely wait a few months and negotiate the best deal. Meanwhile, Moscow is in a weakened position given the war in Ukraine, and its own needs — more avenues to sell gas to China — are more immediate.