Novruz festivities in the Uzbek capital Tashkent are providing a welcome respite after residents shivered through a hard winter.
Uzbekistan experienced unusually long and cold winter, one that highlighted shortcomings in the country’s economic system. According to some estimates, Uzbek GDP enjoyed roughly 7 percent growth in 2011. But much of that growth was driven by commodity exports, namely cotton and natural gas. Those economic spheres tend to benefit a just few individuals, especially those who are well-connected to President Islam Karimov’s administration.
The domestic economy appears to be stagnating, in large part because of stifling government regulation. And judging by the rapidly decaying state of the country’s infrastructure, the quality of life for most Uzbeks seems caught in a downward spiral.
With Tashkent’s centralized heating system increasingly unreliable, a growing number of residents in the Uzbek capital over the past decade have relied on electric space heaters to stay warm. But this winter, the power system blew a gasket and the city was hit with electricity shortages. And to heap pain upon discomfort, the city’s water works spit the bit leaving many without reliable supplies of hot water.
“My home is my fortress. Unfortunately it is very cold in my fortress. After eight hours in a freezing office, I walk around my apartment fully clothed as if I was in the Arctic Circle,” one Tashkent resident told EurasiaNet.org. “Only a walrus can get pleasure from bathing in my house.”
Public anger is building, fueled not so much by the drastic decline in the quality of city services as by officials’ callous, even rapacious attitudes toward the plight of a large number of citizens. Over the past decade the state has been delivering less while charging ever more, several Tashkent residents noted.
One of the main objects of discontent is TashGaz, the city’s state-run gas supplier. Since 2002, TashGaz has been installing meters on private residences under an initiative that ostensibly aims to make gas distribution more equitable by replacing the flat-rate billing system with a pay-per-use scale. But in practice -- at least in the eyes of many, if not a majority of Tashkent residents -- the meters are proving to be a new means for officials to shake down the population. This winter, even though supplies were problematic, some users reported that they hit with unusually high bills. Those that couldn’t pay were then socked with hefty fines.
For some, there was an explanation for the high bills: city officials admitted that defective meters had been installed in some residential areas. The proposed solution left a lot to be desired, however. Officials told those affected to pay their inflated bills for now, and they would get a credit at a later date that could be applied to future use. No one believes that a government give-back will be forthcoming.
A few Tashkent residents have reportedly reached the breaking point and have taken the daring step of refusing to pay their bills. Given that the Uzbek government is consistently ranked by human rights watchdogs as among the most repressive in the world, the willingness of average citizens to defy officials can only be interpreted as a sign of desperation. Stories are also circulating of resourceful homeowners in neighborhoods on the city’s fringes adopting a “back-to-the-future” approach by installing coal- or wood-fired stoves. Such “improvements” must be done stealthily in order to avoid the attention of building inspectors. External alterations to dwellings require payment of substantial municipal “fees.”
Now that spring has arrived, Tashkent residents won’t have to deal with being cold – at least for the next six months or so. Reflecting on this past winter’s ordeal, some Tashkent residents try to search for a silver lining. There was “no need to use the refrigerator to store food,” quipped one resident. She added that “by sacrificing some comfort level you become tempered!”