Russia proposes a gas union and friendship to Kazakhstan
    Gasification of Central Asia?

    ANALYTICS  02 December 2022 - 12:45

    Fuad Shahbazov

    On November 28, Kazakhstani President Kassym Jomart Tokayev paid an official visit to Moscow right after his re-election to the post. While President Tokayev’s visit signalled that Russia is still an important partner for Astana despite the recent tensions, it was a good opportunity for Moscow to mend ties. During the visit, Tokayev and Putin discussed a wide range of issues, including a new energy deal. According to the Russian media, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin discussed a plan for a possible union at a meeting in Moscow.

    The need for a new gas deal is vitally important for Russia as it has faced increasingly tough Western sanctions since the invasion of Ukraine and has been seeking to reorient its oil and gas exports eastwards to China and other Asian markets. In this vein, energy-rich Kazakhstan is a key country that may boost Russia's export to Asia and help to facilitate the partnership with other regional states. Russia's state-run media claims that energy supply routes in the region are "extremely relevant" and that a gas union "will meet the interests of all three countries." Russia is already considering bringing Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan into this new gas union.

    There is no doubt that by proposing a new gas union, Russia is driven by economic and geopolitical interests. Moscow apprehends the fact that its influence in Central Asia is declining steadily, whereas China actively capitalizes on that. Therefore, linking itself with two main regional states, Astana and Tashkent, would enable Moscow to keep its pulse. However, given the frequent statements of the Russian ultra-nationalist politicians towards other post-Soviet republics in light of the Ukraine war, the prospects of such a geopolitical union are suspicious.

    Another reason that Russia seeks to link Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is that those countries have a common gas transport link built during the Soviet times, so technically it is easier for Russia to ensure gas flow through this link and even reproduce it. Indeed, the final destination of the Russian gas flow will be China due to its enormous gas demand. Moreover, additional gas flow may also be crucial for Astana and Tashkent since domestic consumption in these countries has recently risen sharply.

    According to the Ministry of Energy, gas consumption in Kazakhstan has increased almost by 5 billion cubic meters from 2017 to 2021. By the results of 2021, the level of gas supply in the country was 57.67 per cent, and 11 million people now have access to gas. Nearly 42 per cent of non-gasified Kazakhstanis, about 8-9 million people, have no access to gas and burn coal instead.

    As for Uzbekistan, the country planned to increase gas production by the end of this year by 4 per cent to 56.3 bcm this year against 53.8 bcm in 2021. Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan import a vast proportion of their natural gas to China. For example, Uzbekistan exported natural gas worth US$916.7 million to China from January through October 2022, according to Uzbek national media.

    However, the growing export of natural gas to China caused an energy deficit in Kazakhstan, so Tokayev's willingness to discuss the gas union with Russia should not come as a surprise. Kazakhstan needs to gasify its northern territories, which traditionally are supplied via Russian gas, as there is no necessary infrastructure to re-route gas flow from other territories. Considering that Russia started exploring a new gas field in Siberia, the gasification of the northern part of Kazakhstan would be easier. Moreover, establishing a new trilateral gas union would require signing an additional document to set up a joint venture.

    As for now, Kazakhstan – Russia gas union and energy partnership appear more real since Uzbekistan would endeavour to postpone the process. Although the diplomatic standoff between Astana and Moscow mounted significantly this year, Kazakhstan still needs Russia as a partner and counterbalance factor against the rising influence of China and security guarantor against the spread of radical Islamism threat stemming from Afghanistan.

    However, with its stagnating economy and limited technical resources, Russia is still far from being the main economic partner of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as both states seek closer ties with economically sufficient Europe. With the shifting geopolitical balance in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Russia desperately attempts to restore its diminishing influence in a vitally important region, albeit unsuccessfully.


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