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Central Asia in Focus: The Shrinking Caspian Sea

Receding water in the Caspian, Russia tries to maintain influence in Kyrgyzstan, legal questions in Kazakhstan, and more.

A view of the new port on the shores of the Caspian Sea near Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. (AP).
A view of the new port on the shores of the Caspian Sea near Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan. Aleksandr Vershinin (AP).

What’s Happening in the Region

The Shrinking Caspian Sea

Authorities in Kazakhstan’s coastal city of Aqtau declared an emergency situation on June 7 because of the Caspian Sea’s receding water.

Aktau officials stressed the situation would not affect electricity or water supplies to the city. A study of the situation was ordered.

Authorities described the emergency as “localized.” However, hundreds of miles to the south, Turkmenistan has already been reporting a noticeable drop in the level of the Caspian Sea.

RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, known locally as Azatlyk, reported on May 29 that the level of water along Turkmenistan’s Caspian coast had dropped by 13.8-15.75 inches (35-40 cm).

Seven years ago, then-Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered construction of an artificial island, similar to Dubai, near the Turkmen coastal resort area of Avaza.

An Azatlyk correspondent said, “Now the island has become a hill on the shore of the sea.”

Kazakh Ecology Minister Zulfiya Suleymenova said the Caspian Sea’s falling water level was due to a combination of less water flowing out of the Volga River into the sea and climate change.

Why it’s Important: Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have built huge new Caspian ports in recent years to take advantage of East-West trade routes that are being developed to connect China to Europe.

Coastal cities, such as Aqtau, have been growing along with the expansion of the port there.

The same process is happening in Caspian littoral states Azerbaijan and Iran; new ports, and as new jobs are created at those ports, growing cities.

As the water levels drop, ships will be unable to reach the docks.

As one Azatlyk correspondent said, “In 10 years, the Turkmenbashi port will turn into a parking lot.”

Repairs and upgrades at Turkmenbashi port that cost some $1.5 billion were completed in 2018.

Also, the lands on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea are deserts: the Qyzyl-Qum Desert in Kazakhstan and Gara-Gum Desert in Turkmenistan.

The growing populations there, and hopes for opening up land for agriculture, hinged on plants to desalinize the salty water of the Caspian Sea.

Kazakhstan plans to build nine desalinization plants along its Caspian coast, Azerbaijan is building one on its Caspian coast, and Iran has also been considering it.

Water levels are already falling. Use of desalinization plants will hasten the drop in water levels.

After Using the Stick, Russia Offers Kyrgyzstan the Carrot

Last week’s newsletter looked at Russia’s dissatisfaction with recent legislation in Kyrgyzstan.

It seems Russia is using the carrot-and-the-stick approach to maintain influence in Kyrgyzstan. Moscow has pivoted from its rebukes of Kyrgyzstan to now offering help in solving Kyrgyzstan’s chronic energy problems.

Russian state nuclear power company Rosatom is again proposing construction of a small nuclear power plant (NPP) in Kyrgyzstan.

Rosatom chief Aleksei Likhachev discussed the idea with chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s Cabinet of Ministers Akylbek Japarov during the latter’s recent visit to Sochi.

On June 9, Russian Deputy Energy Minister Pavel Snikkars said his country is interested in helping Kyrgyzstan build the massive Kambar-Ata-1 hydropower plant.

Why It’s Important: After Rosatom first posted about a tentative deal with Kyrgyzstan for constructing a small NPP in January 2022, Kyrgyz environmental organizations started a petition against the plan.

Russia has been an off-and-on partner with Kyrgyzstan in the Kambar-Ata-1 HPP project.

A deal in 2008 deal for Russia to help build Kambar-Ata-1 also fell apart.

Kyrgyzstan annulled a different deal with Russia to build the HPP in January 2016 after waiting four years for construction to start.

Russia needs allies and the Kremlin has been paying a lot of attention to the Central Asian states.

Most of the Central Asian states suffer from energy shortages and it seems the Kremlin is holding out energy cooperation to keep Central Asia close to Russia.

Moscow has already offered to sell natural gas to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast discusses a recent in-depth report from a group of Kazakh NGOs about the legality of President Qasym-Zhomat Toqaev giving an order to shoot to kill during unrest in January 2022.

The report also covers detentions and use of torture during the unrest, and investigations and trial processes that followed.

This week’s guests are:

What I’m Following

Why is Otabek Sattoriy in Prison?

In May 2021, Uzbek blogger Otabek Sattoriy was sentenced to six years and six months in prison after being convicted of extortion and defamation, charges Satoriy denies.

Sattoriy wrote about corruption in the Surhandarya Province and was sued by several officials who featured prominently in Sattoriy’s reports.

One of those officials was Isroil Khudoyberdiev, the mayor of the provincial capital Termez until September 2022.

Khudoyberdiev and 17 of his deputies are now on trial, facing charges of bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power.

Tajik Authorities Seize Aga Khan’s Hotel

Tajik authorities have nationalized the Serena hotel in Khorugh that belongs to the Aga Khan Fund.

Khorugh is the capital of eastern Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO).

The Tajik government has been implementing a relentless crackdown in GBAO since May 2022 when government forces responded to peaceful protests by launching a security operation.

Most people in GBAO are Ismaili Muslims, Shiites whose spiritual leader is the Aga Khan.

Since Turkmenistan’s 1991 independence, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has been active in GBAO.

AKDN has done more than the Tajik government for the people of GBAO.

The AKDN has built infrastructure projects such as small hydropower plants, developed hybird crops that can grow in the high altitudes of the Pamir Mountains, and established a university in Khorugh.

Part of the government’s crackdown on GBAO includes attempting to eliminate the Aga Khan’s influence.

Fact of the Week

Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine has forced millions of Ukrainian citizens to flee the country, dropping Ukraine’s population to some 29 million now.

That makes Uzbekistan, population some 36 million, the second most populous country among the countries that became independent when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Get in Touch

Thanks for reading this week’s newsletter.

Feel free to contact me on Twitter @BrucePannier or click reply if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or just want to connect with me about topics concerning Central Asia.

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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time,