CPC - Caspian Policy Center

Research

tajikistan’s efforts to build out its energy system reflects geopolitical competition

Tajikistan’s Efforts to Build Out its Energy System Reflects Geopolitical Competition

Author: Nicholas Castillo

Mar 22, 2024

Image source: shutter stock

Last September, Tajikistan’s Minister of Energy and Water Resources, Daler Juma, laid out ambitious plans for the future of the country's energy sector. Alongside mass growth in Tajikistan’s production of green hydrogen, Juma stated that Dushanbe plans for 10% of Tajikistan's energy production by 2040 to come from other renewable sources such as wind and solar. With an aging electricity supply that relies almost entirely on one source of power generation, hydropower, Tajikistan has a uniquely unstable power supply that has caused energy shortages and rolling blackouts for decades. Now, Tajikistan appears to be moving its energy sector towards greater reliability and sustainability. To fund this effort Tajikistan is now attracting outside investor attention, something intertwined with geopolitical rivalries.

European Union (EU) institutions have emerged as a large potential source of investment for Tajikistan as they boost investment in Central Asia as a whole. The most notable instance of this was the late January announcement by the European Union to invest $10 billion into Central Asian connectivity and transport. Less attention-grabbing, if nonetheless important, deals have been struck in recent months directly relating to Tajikistan’s energy infrastructure. In late February, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), one of the banks involved in the Global Gateway investments, announced €31 million in investments into Tajikistan’s energy grid aimed at improving sustainability and integrating 700 megawatts of electricity generated by renewable sources into the grid. This announcement dovetailed with larger EBRD investments made in September, a $50 million investment made with the Green Climate Fund aiming to improve sustainability within energy, agricultural, and small business sectors. EU interest in Tajik green energy and sustainability goes back years, with the EU investing €12 million in funds for green energy projects in 2021.

Much of this investment is often viewed in terms of European competition with China for influence in Central Asia. 2021’s announcement of the Global Gateway, the EU’s infrastructure investment program, was read as a particularly clear attempt to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China has, for much of Tajikistan's post-1991 history, been the dominant investor in this comparatively small Central Asian country.

Between 2010 and 2021, China was responsible for a large plurality of all investments into Tajikistan, about 25% of all outside investment. Tajikistan is dependent on China or Chinese firms in fields such as gold and coal mining.

China is an important investor for Tajikistan’s hydropower sector. In 2020, China upgraded Tajikistan’s Golovnaya Hydropower Station, after having renovated it two previous times. In May 2023, the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank provided $500 million in soft loans to help construct the colossal Rogun hydroelectric plant. Their involvement in renewables, however, is comparatively light – which may be due to the historic focus on hydropower. A 2023 memo on China’s drive to fund wind and solar energy in Central Asia reports major projects only in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, although it is worth noting that Tajikistan’s rugged terrain is not as well suited for these kinds of renewables. Given that China already has such large economic leverage in Tajikistan's economy, and the debt-trap diplomacy Beijing has engaged in there, Dushanbe might prefer to seek investment, either for the growing renewable sector or hydropower, elsewhere. Therefore, if the aim is to compete with China for influence in Tajikistan, investments in energy could be an effective strategy for Brussels.

Brussels seems also to view investments in Tajik energy as a way to offset a much more intense adversary: Russia. The traditional regional hegemon in Central Asia, Russia has control over Tajikistan’s second-largest hydropower plant, Sangtuda-2, and continues to import most of its petroleum, 63.3%, from Moscow. EU officials are much more explicit about their investments in Tajikistan curtailing Moscow’s influence. In July 2022, when the EU moved to become the largest investor in the construction of the Rogun hydro plant, an anonymous EU official speaking with Reuters stated that the decision was made to develop “Central Asia energy independence from Russia."

Europe is not the only player investing in Tajikistan's energy ambitions. Dushanbe is attracting increasing attention from oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies. In October 2023, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) firm MW Energy signed a memorandum of understanding with Tajikistan’s Ministry of Energy and Water Resources to develop ground-mounted and floating solar projects that will generate 500 MW of energy. In February, meetings between Emeriti and Tajik officials noted not only a huge growth in trade turnover between the two countries in 2023 but also plans for the UAE to expand its role in Tajikistan’s hydro and renewable energy. Saudi Arabia is also investing more in Tajik energy. Riyad has invested $100 million in the ongoing construction of the Rogun dam and in January, Ambassador of Tajikistan to Saudi Arabia Akram Karimi met with the Saudi Secretary General of the Public Investment Fund to discuss future plans for Saudi involvement in Tajik green energy.

In the Middle East, however, geopolitical considerations also play a role. Saudi Arabia has long framed its investments in Tajikistan as a way to counterbalance Iran’s ambitions. In 2017, the Saudi ambassador to Tajikistan claimed to have achieved the “expulsion of Iran and its agents” from the country by way of diplomatic efforts. Saudi Arabia’s recent investment into the Rogun damn, coming amidst the last few years' reproachment between Tehran and Dushanbe, might therefore be an attempt to maintain or re-assert Saudi influence with Dushanbe to counterbalance with Iran.

European and Middle Eastern investors seem highly eager to invest in Tajikistan’s energy sector. This should be read in the context of different geopolitical ambitions, either for the Europeans to counterbalance Russia and China or for Gulf state's efforts at minimizing Iranian influence. Tajikistan appears to be well-placed to take advantage of these currents. A country that continues to deal with dire energy shortages, if Tajikistan can continue to attract attention from foreign investors, it can not only build out a crucial sector but also diversify relations with several powerful global actors.


Related Articles

Energy

Central Asia's Nuclear Ambitions and a Sustainable Energy Future

Alongside renewables, energy efficiency, and other innovative technologies ...

Energy

Azerbaijan and Türkiye Solidify Key Energy Alliance with Turkmen Gas Deal

Azerbaijan and Türkiye struck a major energy deal in May, with state-owned giants BOTAŞ