Uzbekistan: Hard-Pressed Population Unimpressed by Election Fanfare
When Uzbek citizens go to vote in a special presidential election on December 4, temperatures in the southern Kashkadarya Province are expected to be only a few degrees above freezing.
With authorities struggling to keep electricity and gas supplies going in places like this, many rural residents have other things to worry about than what is widely expected to be the electoral coronation of Acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
“Because of the lack of electricity, we cannot even watch television. Sometimes they give us an hour of power, sometimes they don’t. I am talking to you right now as the electricity is off. It has been 12 hours since it went off,” Suyun Usmanov, a 55-year minibus driver in the Kashkadarya region, told EurasiaNet.org in a telephone interview.
Mirziyoyev has cast himself as an engine for national regeneration, and has pledged to promote investment, energize industry and build massive amounts of housing.
At the street level, however, hopes are far more modest. Popular attention is fixed on microeconomic issues, and few seem interested in Mirziyoyev's macroeconomic vision.
“A couple of times when [the TV] was on, I saw Shavkat Mirziyoyev talking. He promised that we could have electricity and gas in our homes, he seems like a good man. So I think I will vote for him,” Usmanov said.
But there are hints that some frustration is bubbling to the surface.
In an unusual breakout of unrest, a large crowd of women in Jizzakh — Mirziyoyev’s home region — last month reportedly blockaded a highway in protest at the lack of gas and electricity in their villages.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Radio Ozodlik, reported that the 200 or so women came from three villages in the Gallyaral District. The protest was sparked after the district mayor answered complaints by saying nobody would be getting any gas, Ozodlik reported.
Such impromptu rallies, rare as they are, typically tend to be organized by women, as police appear less inclined to use force to break such protests up.
Traffic along the road connecting the capital, Tashkent, to the southern city of Termez was stopped for one hour, causing delays. In a bid to resolve the situation, officials went to the area and went back on their earlier word, promising that gas and electricity supplies would resume.
A reporter in the province confirmed to EurasiaNet.org the rally had taken place, adding that around 150 to 180 women were involved. “Previously, during elections, they would at least give us some gas and uninterrupted electricity. But during these elections, they have given us nothing,” the reporter said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “After this protest, they brought the villages coal and gas bottles, but they still haven’t turned on the household supplies of natural gas.”
The last similar noteworthy public show of discontent came in November 2013, when about 100 residents of a district of Samarkand mounted a protest at having gas and power cut off for three days by blocking a highway.
For many Uzbeks living in the regions, and struggling to eke out an existence, the state is a remote concept.
Feruza, who lives in a rural area of the Kashkadarya Province, said her village has never been connected to the household gas grid.
“What saves us are the cows and oxen, because we use their manure to make dung cakes [for fuel] and we mix that with sun-dried bricks so that it burn well in the stove and in the oven. I don’t watch television because we don’t have electricity and I don’t believe any of these candidates is going to improve our lives. They would be better off going around the villages and going into people’s homes to see the simple people,” Feruza told EurasiaNet.org.
The question of fuel recurs repeatedly in conversations with rural Uzbeks, like 89-year old Dzhovli Eshmatov, who endured the privations of the Second World War.
“Stalin brought electricity to our village, but he didn’t live to bring us gas too,” said Eshmatov, who lives in a village around 40 kilometers away from the Shurtan gas field in Kashkadarya. “I probably won’t live to see gas, but I would really like it if our future president would bring gas to the village. At least that way my grandchildren would get to have it.”
State media has been slightly more open in its coverage of this special election, devoting more time and space to the three candidates who are challenging Mirziyoyev. In all previous presidential votes, state media devoted all coverage to the late president, Islam Karimov.
Still, the tweak in the media’s approach appears to have done little to foster a competitive race. Other than Mirziyoyev, most can only name one other candidate, Khatamjon Ketmonov, who is viewed by many Uzbeks as a government yes-man.
If the candidates are struggling to gain any significant traction, despite their greater exposure, it is partly because they are failing to address pressing issues. Beyond the recurrent electricity and gas problems, everyday life has been complicated by the shaky state of the national currency, which is sowing considerable uncertainty, and fueling inflation.
Despite the pressing economic issues, Ketmonov has focused on vague arguments in favor of social equality. Another candidate, Sarvar Otamuratov, has run on another abstract platform of promoting Uzbek culture and national self-awareness. Meanwhile, calls from Nariman Umarov to broaden access to higher education are relevant to only a limited section of the population.
The indifference expressed by Mavzhuda Nusurkulova, an unemployed 54-years-old from Samarkand, reflects a popular mood of apathy about the vote.
“I don’t care who becomes president, the main thing is that they provide employment for our men. I have two sons and a daughter with her husband all living and working in Russia. I haven’t seen my children for three years,” Nusurkulova said. “I want them to remain at home and work. … There’s nothing else I can say.”