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PANNIER: Response to Bishkek thermal power plant explosion lifts lid on Central Asia relations

The Soviet-era Bishkek Thermal Power Plant was commissioned in 1961.
The Soviet-era Bishkek Thermal Power Plant was commissioned in 1961.

In the early hours of February 2, part of the Bishkek thermal power plant (TPP) blew up, leaving large areas of Kyrgyzstan’s capital without heating or hot water.

In a sign that regional relations are changing, some of Kyrgyzstan neighbours were quick to offer aid.

However, not all the neighbours stepped forward with offers of help—and that also says something about regional relations.

Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Minister Jeenbek Kulubayev deserves much of the credit for contacting neighbouring countries immediately after the accident at Bishkek TPP.

Following Kulubayev’s conversation with Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov, Turkmen President Serdar Berdimuhamedov on February 3 ordered supplies of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to be dispatched to Kyrgyzstan.

On February 5, a train from Turkmenistan carrying 2,000 tonnes of LNG arrived in Kyrgyzstan.

Also on February 3, following a conversation between Kulubayev and Uzbek Foreign Minister Bakhtiyor Saidov, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev ordered 1,000 gas cannisters, the sort still used widely in households across the former Soviet Union, to be sent from the eastern Uzbek city of Andijan to Jalal-Abad in southern Kyrgyzstan from where they were shipped north to Bishkek.

Kulubayev also spoke with Kazakh Foreign Minister Murat Nurtleu on February 3 and later that same day it was reported Kazakhstan had increased exports of electricity to Kyrgyzstan.

Chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s Cabinet of Ministers Akylbek Japarov was in Kazakhstan when the accident happened at the coal-fired Bishkek TPP.

He was supposed to attend a meeting of heads of the governments of Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) members in Almaty, but changed his plans on hearing of the explosion.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin was in Almaty for the meeting and said his country was prepared to assist in repairing the TPP and restoring it to operation. Russia sent “specialists” to Kyrgyzstan that evening.

LNG sent by rail as aid by Turkmenistan arrives in Bishkek (Credit: Kyryz foreign affairs ministry).

Bishkek TPP dates back to 1961, when Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union. Russia has accrued vast experience in keeping such aging power plants running in the years since the USSR fell apart.

The power plant underwent extensive repairs and had two new 150-MW units installed less than 10 years ago. It was fully relaunched in late August 2017.

Chinese company Tebian Electric Apparatus (TBEA) was contracted to do the work and Kyrgyzstan accepted a loan of some $386 from China’s ExIm Bank to fund the overhaul.

In late January 2018, an accident at Bishkek TPP left large parts of the city without heating during an unusually cold period when temperatures were around minus 25 Celsius.

An investigation into the incident determined Kyrgyz officials had siphoned off some $100mn of the loan, resulting in substandard parts and equipment being used in repairs and upgrades at the facility.

It was also revealed that there was no tender for the contract to do the work on the Bishkek TPP. China’s ExIm Bank insisted TBEA get the contract, and that some Chinese workers be employed in the project (a common practice for Chinese companies working in Central Asia) in return for giving Kyrgyzstan the loan.

Management officials at the plant and government officials, including two former prime ministers, were convicted for playing roles in embezzling money and subsequent shoddy work at the TPP, but there was no way of holding Chinese officials accountable and the loan still needs to be repaid.

So, it is perhaps not surprising that China has not offered any assistance in alleviating the damage at the plant and has not sent any humanitarian aid to the tens of thousands of residents in the Kyrgyz capital without hot water or heating.

Beijing might not want to remind anyone in Kyrgyzstan that China has connections to the Bishkek TPP.

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Kulubayev visited Tajikistan on February 4-5, meeting with his Tajik counterpart Sirojiddin Muhriddin and President Emomali Rahmon.

There was  brief but heavy fighting along the two countries’ border in April 2021 and September 2022 that broke out after years of smaller territorial conflicts in the area. Scores of people were killed in the two clashes, hundreds wounded, and extensive damage was done to homes on both sides of the border.

The two countries have made great progress in demarcating disputed areas along their common border since the September 2022 fighting and continuing that progress was the top priority in Kulubayev’s meeting with Tajik officials.

Tajikistan, the poorest of the five Central Asian states, is in any case not in a position to offer much help to neighbour Kyrgyzstan.

However, reports of Kulubayev’s meetings with Muhriddin and Rahmon do not mention either Tajik officials enquiring about the situation in the Kyrgyz capital or expressing their condolences for the five plant workers who were injured in the TPP explosion.

When the 2018 accident happened at Bishkek TPP, Kyrgyzstan was left to deal with the problem on its own. In March that same year, the Central Asian leaders held their first summit in nearly 20 years, heralding a new era of regional cooperation that has seen the presidents of the five countries meeting regularly since then.

The rapid response of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to the recent plight of Kyrgyzstan is an example of this cooperation and it is likely a comfort to all the people of Central Asia to see that if they find themselves in need, they can count on neighbours for help.