It is the main topic of conversation at every dinner table in the country. After nine months of erratic blackouts and broken government promises, the Kyrgyz are growing restless. Many are even saying the situation is worse than before the Tulip Revolution in 2005.
Last spring, following the harshest winter in living memory, the government announced electricity rationing. Citing an unusually dry season, officials explained that water in the Toktogul Reservoir needed to be conserved for the upcoming winter. The reservoir regulates the Naryn River system, host to five of six of the country's hydroelectric plants. Officials instituted a series of rolling blackouts, in many places for the first time, aiming to reduce nationwide consumption by 30 percent.
Despite an official pledge that conservation measures would stop in summer, the unpredictable blackouts are continuing - and they are now paired with fears about a heating shortage. Throughout spring and fall, most of the capital experienced six- or eight-hour cutoffs daily, with electricity scarcer in rural areas. The Energy Ministry again promised an end to the rationing on November 3, when Bishkek's central heating station - which also produces electricity - would begin to send heat into apartment blocs. But cutoffs continue, as officials urge residents to use alternative sources of heat, such as coal. At the moment, it appears only central Bishkek enjoys steady supplies.
"Low water inflow is the cause of the energy crisis," said Alexei Zaryanov, deputy head of repairs at the state-controlled energy company that also operates the reservoir. "We had the same situation in 1998 and 2002. But high water inflow after those winters allowed us to compensate the water deficits. Unfortunately, that didn't happen this year." According to Zaryanov, the Toktogul hydroelectric station generated 8.7 billion kilowatt hours last winter; this year, with current water levels, it has the capacity to generate only 5.5 billion kilowatt hours.
Others believe corruption is contributing to the crisis, alleging that officials have been illegally selling power created at the reservoir to neighboring countries. Last spring many people accepted the government's explanation that nature was the cause of the problem. But they are changing their minds. An online poll by the AKIpress news agency claims that almost 60 percent of respondents feel the crisis is due to institutional corruption. Over 30 percent blame it on government mismanagement, while less than 4 percent deem Mother Nature the culprit.
"We don't live like this. This is Bishkek," a young woman in the capital told EurasiaNet. "We all believe this is caused by corruption."
Another resident of the capital described her sense of panic. "For long time, I have been trying to adapt. But as soon as electricity is gone, I feel very stressed. I start to think negatively about the country's future," she said.
The Minister of Industry, Power and Fuel Resourcesk, Saparbek Balkibekov, is at the center of growing unease with the situation. Throughout summer and fall, he shifted deadlines for the end of rotating blackouts. But now, many say that his calls for reduced consumption are an attempt to shift a disproportionate share of the burden onto consumers. Districts have an electricity quota, but are not told what the quota is, or how to measure it. "If the neighborhood exceeds its limit, it will be cut off," he said at an October 29 cabinet meeting.
He has warned of more trouble to come. "If electricity consumption limits are not observed, Kyrgyzstan is due to experience an energy crisis in February 2009," Balkibekov said November 10, noting turbines at the Toktogul hydropower plant would stop completely. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Even some of President Kurmanbek Bakiev's close political allies have started to express concern about the real reasons behind the crisis and the minister's handling of the problem. Some in the governing Ak Zhol Party are calling for his resignation. Sanjarbek Kadyraliev, an influential Ak Zhol MP, said the minister should be fired and investigated for criminal wrongdoing.
With rising inflation, a comparatively weak national currency, and widespread anger with the status quo, opposition parties are finding a second wind, and are stepping up their activity. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. On November 3, 12 groups signed a memorandum to coordinate protests. At least two opposition parties, the Revolutionary Movement and Free Kyrgyzstan, plan mass demonstrations in November and December, seeking to take advantage of disenchantment with the government's handling of the crisis.
"The reason for crisis is corruption," Baktybek Beshimov, the parliamentary leader of the opposition Social-Democratic party told EurasiaNet.
"In this system you find lack of transparency and reliable information on simple things. Electricity export [to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan] has taken on special significance for some mafiosi groups during the last 10 years," he argued. "They overdrew water from the [Toktogul] reservoir. ? And now they are correcting what they've done at the expense of the population."
"This energy crisis is a striking example of a systematic governmental crisis. We need to change the system and change the political players," said Alikbek Jekshenkulov, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs now affiliated with the opposition Movement for Justice.
Arslan Mamatov is the pseudonym for a Kyrgyz journalist.