As the Old Spice man might say, some people who look at the Arab Spring demonstrations, then look at Central Asia, then look at the Arab spring demonstrations, then back at Central Asia, say sadly, Central Asia is not like the Middle East, but it could be if only...people were less timid...or the West stopped supporting the regime ...or if more people joined Facebook groups.
Of course, even with similarities, like a dictator in power for a long time (President Islam Karimov has ruled for 22 years in Uzbekistan), even with the US seemingly interested in downplaying human rights problems over the greater need for a supply route to the Afghanistan war, there are major differences between Uzbekistan and say, Egypt or Tunisia.
The virtual absence of independent local or foreign media in Uzbekistan is one of those differences. There are almost no independent media outlets outside of a few brave web sites or newsletters emailed by dissidents -- and very few civic groups able to function independently. So when people *do* protest, we don't always hear about it -- or at least not right away. The problem is exacerbated when Uzbekistan becomes a foreign policy story and drives the other local stories off the top of the Google news results.
Bahtiyor Hamrayev, a local human rights leader, told Radio Ozodlik that the last straw for the women was the onset of the cold weather, after more than a week without utilities. Some local bureaucrats came out to meet the protesters, and promised turn on the gas and power again. The electricity went back on during their negotiations, so the women were convinced to leave -- but then was shut off again after two hours. The women said they might go out and demonstrate again, because the interruption of basic services has become such a regular affair.
"We have no gas at all, I can't even boil my tea kettle. We have really suffered. We are sitting wrapped up in a blanket or a chapan," a resident of Jizzak told Radio Ozodlik, referencing the traditional cloak worn in Central Asia. An official from JizzakGAZ, the state utility, told Radio Ozodlik that everything was fine and there was no interruption of service. Even so, there have been similar protests in Karakalpakstan, Khorezm, Samarkand, Andijan, Ferghana, Bukhara, Jizzak and Tashkent region, says Radio Ozodlik.
News Briefing Central Asia reports that police were even called into Gulistan in the Syrdarya region to disperse protesters who invaded the provincial government offices demanding for their gas to be switched back on. A school-teacher told NBCA that their homes were freezing, and they were only getting a few hours of electricity a day.
Local administrators have even told both individual consumers and businesses in some areas to stock up on firewood or coal. Says NBCA:
With no gas, and no central heating from the urban systems fed by local power stations – themselves often gas-fired – residents are turning to solid fuels. But the prices of these are going up. Coal now costs 400,000 soms a ton, which is enough to heat a house for 20 or 25 days. At 150 dollars, that is equivalent to the average monthly wage in many parts of Uzbekistan.
How is it that Uzbekistan, which exports gas and oil to its neighbors, doesn't have enough for its own citizens? Of course, rampant consumer debt especially in the impoverished countryside can lead to shut-offs, but that's not a huge amount and not always the reason.
The independent Uzbek news site uznews.net started warning about a repeat of gas shortages this winter back in August -- and they were right. The editors put the reason for the problem pretty starkly:
State-run energy holding Uzbekneftegaz almost doubled its production of natural gas in the first half of 2011 compared to the same period last year. As the government apportions its gas supplies for the year, the question is whether or not it will prioritise the provision of heat and light for its citizens in outlying regions or whether it will choose to sell the fuel abroad.
Uzbekistan reportedly exported nearly 40 percent of 60 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas produced in 2010. Most of it went to Russia, supplying the Uzbek state treasury with more than $5 billion; 10 bcm went to China, and small amounts to neighbors Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
So while officials speak vaguely of "some problems" on the line, or pressure drops that are being fixed, or even rising prices, some are raising the question of whether Tashkent is so bent on getting hard currency that it is willing to short its own people to sell energy abroad.