Just a week ago at a cabinet meeting, Uzbek leader Islam Karimov hailed the achievements of the Uzbek economic model, which is basically a retrofitted command system. But Karimov clearly hasn’t gotten out of the capital much lately. For many citizens in Central Asian most populous state, electricity cuts and gas shortages have become a defining feature of this winter.
During a January 19 cabinet session, Karimov recited a bevy of positive economic statistics, anchored by a reported 8.3 percent rise in GDP in 2011, according to state-controlled news outlets. While many international experts question the quality of official statistics, strong GDP growth is plausible given the fact that Uzbekistan is a significant exporter of natural gas. Yet, the state appears not to be sharing any profit with the population.
Citizens in Tashkent and other major cities say privation is a daily fact of life. Residents in one of the hardest hit areas, Andijan Province, tell EurasiaNet.org that they must endure long lines at gas stations and hours without heat or lighting at home. In Tashkent, power outages are also becoming a regular feature of life: even some businesses and offices in the city center have been informed that they will have to operate without electricity on Wednesday mornings until further notice.
“There are shortages, especially in the regions,” said one Tashkent entrepreneur on January 24. The entrepreneur added that officials offered no explanations for the cause of the planned, regular Wednesday morning outages.
A 44-year-old housewife in Andijan, speaking to EurasiaNet.org on condition of anonymity, said shortages were hitting the elderly and poor especially hard. “We don’t have electricity for five or six hours a day, but sometimes we don’t have electricity up to 10 hours a day,” she said.
“It is very difficult for old people, they always sleep with clothes on and use plastic bottles with hot water to heat themselves,” the woman added. “Recently our neighbors called an ambulance and doctors had to help the old person without electricity. They used candles for that.”
Apartment dwellers in Andijan are being provided with gas, but the supply is not always regular. To exacerbate matters, some Andijan residents are illegally tapping into municipal pipes, thus depriving neighbors further down the gas lines, she continued. “For the past seven or eight years people have been using hand-made gas pumps which work on electricity, or just small AA batteries,” the housewife explained. “The pumper is connected to a pipe and goes to a heater, so the heater can work well with a high pressure of gas. But at the same time your neighbor will have no gas because the pumper sucks out everything.”
In the autumn, according to the housewife, officials advised residents in Andijan Province that gas might be in short supply, and urged people to make alternative arrangements, including obtaining coal- and wood-burning heating systems. “The people who followed that advice are warm now, but those who didn’t are living in cold,” she added.
Gasoline supplies for cars is also intermittent, an attendant at a busy gas station in Andijan told EurasiaNet on January 24. The business has two outlets – one selling fuel for vehicles, the other selling gas for heating. “Sometimes we have gasoline in our gas station, sometimes we don’t. I really don’t know why it happens,” said the attendant, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “Sometimes we have no electricity at our gas stations and we can’t fill cars with fuel, and that causes long lines of people waiting for gas. All our equipment works with electricity and without it our business is just stuck.”
A spokeswoman for Uztransgaz, the state-owned entity responsible for distributing gas both domestically and for export, maintained that “all oblasts [provinces] of Uzbekistan have gas, 100 per cent. Maybe some remote regions have low pressure but we can’t change that.”
However she admitted that gas is not plentiful. “We are providing what we have, trying to use our supplies of gas rationally. We cannot spend all the gas we have this winter as it may be not enough for the next year,” she added on January 25.
Some experts suggest several factors are behind the power shortages. On the one hand, the government appears to prioritize exporting gas in order to gain much needed foreign currency for state coffers. In addition, domestic demand is poorly served by the existing infrastructure, much of which is in need of modernization.
“Authorities know that exporting natural gas is more profitable than selling it domestically, and apart from the profit margin there’s the problem of insolvency for most of the local population, they just can’t pay on time for the gas they use,” said Sukhrobjon Ismoilov, director at The Expert Working Group, a non-governmental, non-commercial network of independent experts in Uzbekistan. The question of energy supplies is fast becoming a problem on a “national scale,” Ismoilov added.
The current shortages and the associated hardships are unlikely to prompt much in the way of public dissent, said Ajdar Kurtov, an analyst at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in Moscow. “Of course a lack of gas in wintertime certainly causes resentment and dissatisfaction, and it is significant. But will this impact the political arena, causing a shift of political power or the current regime? No,” Kurtov said.
“If you compare Uzbekistan today to the time when Tajikistan continually had no electricity and when the population was dissatisfied -- it changed nothing in the Tajik political arena,” Kurtov added. “Uzbekistan operates a much stricter regime, the economic situation will not lead to a change in government leadership.”
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek-based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.