Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbekistan: Andijan Braced for Winter Fuel Crisis

In a country with huge gas reserves, residents of a major city are told they must make their own heating arrangements.
People in the Uzbek city of Andijan are gathering in firewood after learning there will be no gas to heat their homes this winter.

In previous years, residents have mounted protests to demand that the gas be turned back on, but this year they plan to keep quiet, recalling the violence in May last year, when government security forces fired into a crown of demonstrators, killing hundreds according to the accounts of journalists and human rights observers on the ground.

A recent meeting of the regional government heard that of the majority of homes in Andijan that rely on gas for heating and cooking, six out of ten will not receive any over the winter. Nor will about 60 hospitals and clinics, 230 schools, colleges and kindergartens, or any of the military units based in the region.

No formal reason was given for the decision, but whenever officials are questioned on the issue, they commonly cite non-payment of gas bills by consumers.

Andijan residents also report that when they ring the gas company’s help line, they are told the supply network is under repair.

The position in Andijan seems to be worse than in other cities in the Fergana valley, such as Namangan and Fergana itself, where economic conditions are similar, and corporate and private consumers are unlikely to be better payers.

Because most homes in Andijan are fitted with gas appliances, the authorities have made no provision to buy in coal. The city’s coal warehouse says it is only allowed to sell to schools and hospitals at the moment.

Commercial traders are now selling coal at about one US dollar for ten kilogrammes - a lot of money in a country where the average monthly salary is around 30 dollars.

Smoke can already be seen curling above apartment blocks where people have installed makeshift stoves, sometimes dangerous home-made contraptions.

“If you go into any apartment, you’ll see coal or firewood stacked on the balcony,” said pensioner Alfia Zeinetdinova. “Would you see this in Tashkent or any other city? Soon it will be winter and we are worried that we haven’t stored enough fuel.”

Another resident, Ibodatkhon Kimsanova, said, “The winter heating season is a difficult time for us. The heaters are ice cold, the gas stove doesn’t work, and there are regular electricity blackouts. Our entire family - my husband and I and our three children - live in just one of our four rooms all winter, where there is some heat from an electric fire when the power is on.

“But when it becomes unbearably cold, we all move in with my husband’s parents, who live in a village outside the city. They have the same problems with gas there, but at least you can fire a stove with coal, wood and cotton-plant stalks.”

The fuel shortage is a recurring problem, and in previous years there were protests which met with some success. But the trauma left by last year’s violence has left its mark.

“They [the authorities] used to be a bit scared when we held a demonstration and blocked the roads in protest,” said one local man who did not want to be named. “Officials would make promises in an effort to get us to stop, saying that if we dispersed they would sort things out.

“But nowadays, just try making a move, let alone rebelling, and they’ll threaten to shoot you! They’re just cops, not civil servants.”

In contrast to the government’s position that the May 2005 demonstration on the city’s central square was orchestrated by Islamic militants, Andijan resident Nargiza Yuldasheva said people at the rally were articulating the same kind of social and economic problems they still face.

“Last year, people rose up because of these social and other problems, and look what happened to them. They were all punished. We don’t want that to happen again,” she said.

Uzbekistan is a major producer of natural gas even by world standards, and Andijan residents suspect there is no real shortage. Instead, they believe the gas that should have gone to their homes will be sold to Kyrgyzstan to earn much-needed hard currency for the state.

Andijan is located on the border with Kyrgyzstan, a major consumer of Uzbek gas. The Kyrgyz, who have some coal but no oil or gas, are currently paying 55 dollars per 1,000 cubic metres, a rate that is likely to rise to 100 dollars per 1,000 cu m in January as part of a trend in Central Asia where states are trying to charge their neighbours world market prices.

In Andijan, the shortage is already hitting Oxana Pilipenko’s plans to cook and store seasonal foodstuffs for the winter.

“It’s now time to start stocking up for winter,” she said. “I used to preserve jars of salted or cooked vegetables, salads and so on. With no gas, I haven’t done a single jar yet this year. But we will need food for the winter.”

Aziz Kurbanov is the pseudonym of a journalist in Uzbekistan. The names of interviewees have also been changed out of concern for their security.

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