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Kyrgyz Government Faces Down Utilities Protests

Poor people to be cushioned against price rises, but authorities insist everyone else must pay realistic share of energy costs. By Ainagul Abdrakhmanova in Bishkek
By Ainagul Abdrakhmanova

A loosely-organised campaign is under way to force Kyrgyzstan’s government to reverse rises for heating and electricity prices, but the authorities are refusing to back down.

The prices of electricity and central heating have risen by 100 per cent and 500 per cent, respectively, since the beginning of 2010. The government says it has been forced to cut subsidies because it was costing it more to generate electricity and provide hot water than customers were paying. (See Soaring Energy Costs Anger Kyrgyz, RCA No. 604, 23-Feb-10)

Public protests over the increases have been localised and appear to have been organised at grassroots level rather than by the political opposition. Some analysts see it as indicative of the state of the opposition parties that they have failed to harness the undoubted mood of public anger.

The first two demonstrations took place on February 24 and March 10, in Naryn, the main town in a mountainous province that gets particular cold in winter. Adilet Eshenov, a local representative of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a non-government umbrella group, said that up to 3,000 people participated in each event. A local government official said the figure for the second protest was closer to 2,000.

The high price of electricity and heating also featured high on the agenda of a public meeting attended by several thousand people held in the capital Bishkek on March 17. This event, described as a “kurultay” or popular assembly, was overtly political as it was arranged by the main opposition bloc. As a result, a much wider range of political and civil rights concerns were aired than at the Naryn demonstrations.

Further opposition rallies took place in Bishkek and in the southern city of Osh on March 23, close to the fifth anniversary of the “Tulip Revolution” which brought current President Kurmanbek Bakiev to power, but again, the main thrust of the demands were political rather than focused on the hardship caused by high utility prices.

A new group called Movement 220 was set up by a number of NGOs at the end of February to try to kick-start a nationwide campaign of protests against the price hikes, as well as against the privatisation of Severelektro, a state-run power company, and the communications company Kyrgyztelekom.

So far, Movement 220 has achieved limited success. In mid-March, supporters distributed leaflets in the capital Bishkek and urged people to wear yellow ribbons as a sign of support. It is also campaigning to gather the 300,000 signatures required to call for a referendum, but has managed just over 1,000 so far.

In a separate development, leading lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov and two figures from the NGO sector have brought court actions against the government, arguing that it was in breach of the constitution when it issued a decree approving the price rises without going through a process of public consultation.

The Kyrgyz government is standing firm on the basic principle that prices have to go up. But it is now pledging to ensure that the poorest sections of the population will be protected against spiralling costs.

Prime Minister Daniar Usenov visited Naryn three days after the second protest, and promised to look into demands raised by activists there. He also said no electricity customer would be penalised for late payment of bills.

At a press conference in Bishkek two days later, on March 15, Usenov argued that energy policy needed to be driven by purely economic considerations. Previous governments, he said, had shied away from raising prices because they did not want to deal with the political flak.

On March 27, President Bakiev signed a decree introducing measures to protect low-income groups in mountainous areas and other outlying parts of the country. Unveiling the package before parliament a day earlier, Usenov said people who fell into this category would be charged half price up to a set limit of electricity consumption, and the limit would be twice as high in winter as in summer.

Last month, Bakiev said he had ordered a review of the price hikes, and the findings would determine whether a second round of increases, scheduled for July would go ahead.

Political analyst Nur Omarov told IWPR he thought it highly unlikely that this review would result in a recommendation against further rises.

“This audit is, in my view, merely an attempt to distract the population from the acute social problems,” he said.

The first few years of Bakiev’s rule were marked by large demonstrations led by opposition parties. Although Kyrgyzstan is having a tougher time than before as it tries to weather the impact of global economic crisis, and the price increases are matters of genuine public concern, recent protests have been muted.

Gulnara Jurabaeva of Movement 220 argues that people are fearful of the authorities, but that given time and a solid leadership, the campaign could take off.

“So far, these actions have been localised and it will take time and a public figure who commands the respect and confidence of ordinary people for them to grow to a larger scale,” she said, adding that there were opposition politicians who fitted the description.

“We are not chasing after numbers, but I am certain that this movement will gradually gain strength since there are a lot of dissatisfied people,” said Jurabaeva.

Omarov, however, believes people in Kyrgyzstan now harbour a distrust of political groups of any stripe. “In Kyrgyzstan, there are no political parties or public [non-government] organisations which people trust,” he said. “That is why they aren’t supporting the meetings and instead prefer to quietly stay away.”

Political scientist Marat Kazakpaev believes the opposition, despite its weakness, will be able to take advantage of the protests.

“Government policy on the price rises gives the opposition an ace to play,” he said. “Although the opposition doesn’t enjoy a lot of trust among ordinary people, it can nevertheless exploit current social and economic conditions. I don’t think the mood of protest is going to decrease.”

Begaly Nargozuev, a member of parliament with the president’s Ak Jol party, believes the opposition is squarely behind all the protests. He says its failure to mobilise significant support despite the real public concern about price rises is a reflection on the level of trust people have in it.

“All the protests around the price rises are being run by the opposition… it doesn’t want to miss this chance, and it will do anything to gather people all over the country, using any pretext,” he said. “Of course people aren’t happy about the tariffs increasing. But the majority understand that political games are being played here. People have become wiser and more experienced, and they don’t want to be a tool in the hands of politicians.”

Azimbek Beknazarov, a leading member of the United People’s Movement, the main opposition bloc, insisted the protests were spontaneous grassroots affairs.

“People are not following parties or public [non-government] organisations, they are uniting by themselves,” he said. “People are against the increases and they say so openly. The problem is that the media don’t report this, the TV doesn’t show it and there’s a sense that everyone is satisfied with everything.”

Following the protests in Naryn, a number of online news agencies were blocked and western broadcasters were taken off the air.

This led to calls by international organisations, notably the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Reporters Without Borders, for an end to blocks on media access.

Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is an IWPR-trained contributor in Kyrgyzstan.

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