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Utility Debts Mount in Uzbekistan

Uzbeks ask president to write off utility debts, saying they can’t afford to pay.
By Malik Boboev

Impoverished Uzbeks have appealed to President Islam Karimov to ask that their debts for electricity, gas and water be written off.

Erk party member Jakhongir Shosalimov said more than 1,000 people have so far signed the petition, highlighting the desperation felt by many who can’t afford to pay their utility bills and face legal action or losing their homes.

Some have not paid for several years and now owe more than 500 US dollars. The average monthly wage in Uzbekistan is 30 dollars.

Overall, Uzbeks owe several billion sums, or millions of US dollars, to the state utility provider Uzkommunalkhizmat.

Mavlyuda Nazirova, a resident of the Sebzor housing estate in Tashkent, is scared to think of the debt she has accumulated. “I regularly paid until 2002, but I couldn’t pay for public utilities any further,” said Nazirova.

The petition to Karimov, which has already been sent, says the government should use the proceeds from natural resources such as gold, gas, oil and metals to cover the money its citizens owe for utilities.

“We want the state to write off these debts. They should write them off using each person’s share of the national riches. It is declared everywhere that the riches of Uzbekistan belong to the people,” said Shosalimov, one of the organisers of the campaign.

The head of the Mazlum human rights organisation, Agzam Turgunov, says the petition, which at first glance may seem naïve and laughable, has a serious subtext. “The people of Uzbekistan are impoverished, and so the idea is supported by almost everyone who hears it,” said Turgunov.

“Inability to pay has become a mass phenomenon in Uzbekistan today. People are in despair. They really do not have anywhere to find money, and so they snatch at any chance to help them solve the problem of their accumulated debts.”

Despondency prompted the campaign, Shosalimov said, but rumours the government plans to hold back the salaries of those who owed money for utilities fuelled the outrage.

This was denied by both the prime minister’s press secretary, Malik Kadyrov, and the general director of Uzkommunalkhizmat agency, Khusan Nigmatov, who admits the cost of utilities increase several times a year.

Nigamtov maintains the appeal to Karimov to write off the debts is unjust, because it penalises people who do pay regularly.

However, the fact remains that there are entire apartment blocks where most of the inhabitants do not pay for public utilities.

Not surprisingly then, the heads of utility committees in many of these buildings around the country are backing the campaign as they are most affected when residents don’t contribute for electricity, gas, water, heating and other maintenance costs.

The worst debtors are large families. Their bills are calculated by the number of people living in their apartment.

According to human rights activist Turgunov, a family of five must pay 20,000-30,000 sums a month (20-30 dollars).

“As the average wage in Uzbekistan is 30,000 sums, it is quite unrealistic to use this money to pay for public utilities,” said Turgunov.

Those interviewed by IWPR about utility debts blamed the problem on small salaries and high prices for gas, water and electricity.

Sharofat Turaeva, a Tashkent resident, says her debts for heating alone come to 150 dollars, and she has not yet calculated how much she owes for gas and water.

“When your family can’t afford food, you don’t think about other things. My children are small, and I don’t work myself, so how can I pay?” she said.

Shoira Mirsoatova, also from Tashkent, says that several days ago she was summoned to the Sabir Rakhimov district civil court for non-payment.

“I openly said in court that I had no money to pay,” she said.

Mirsoatova is one of the first who signed the appeal to the president and says his decision is vital as she may lose her apartment and end up on the street because of her debt.

Representatives of the presidential press service said that they had not heard of the citizens’ appeal, and had therefore made no decision.

Independent political scientist Bakhodyr Musaev was pessimistic the campaign would do any good, predicting an apathetic reaction from Tashkent.

“Over many years, the authorities in Uzbekistan have demonstrated political lack of foresight and moral blindness in issues concerning the interests of ordinary people. I am sure that this appeal will also be ignored,” said Musaev.

He says it is naïve to expect the authorities to write off the debts, saying this would be difficult both economically and politically.

“One would hope at least for a humane reaction, some sympathy, but I am afraid that there will be no such thing,” he said.

Shosalimov, however, is undeterred and continues to collect signatures, saying he is giving the government a peaceful way out of a difficult situation.

“We do not want violence, but we will inevitably come to it, because the problem of non-payment has to be solved, and so the authorities will use pressure, but the people will not put up with it anymore,” said Shosalimov.

Malik Boboev is an IWPR correspondent in Tashkent.

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