August has been a bad month at the pump in Uzbekistan.
Over the past few weeks, the country has seen two sudden and poorly explained gasoline shortages, according to local press reports and the state-run gasoline distributor.
First, on August 6, Uzmetronom, a site believed to be linked to the Uzbek security services, said some gas stations had stopped selling regular gasoline at government-set prices and begun selling only premium at a mark-up. It blamed shortages. Then, on August 20, the semi-official Podrobno.uz reported that motorists could buy only premium gasoline for 2,500 sums per liter ($1.20 at the official exchange rate), an increase of 25 percent over the price authorities set in April. Other octanes are not available in Tashkent, the site said. Presumably the shortages are also affecting other areas.
The shortages have given rise to all kinds of rumors. One holds that the government will soon increase the price of gasoline so traders with stockpiles are waiting for new prices to be announced. A second rumor is that the government will soon give up regulating gasoline prices altogether, leaving prices to the market, where they would likely rise dramatically. Another is that the government has started building up stocks of fuel for the forthcoming cotton-harvesting campaign, hence the shortages.
Instead of simply increasing the price of the commodity (which is tightly controlled by the government), gas station owners have reacted in an unusual way: claiming shortages of 80 octane petrol, some have started selling it marked as 92 octane or higher, drivers complain. The stations thus boost profits, while leaving drivers fuming. The price of low-octane petrol is around 1,250 sums per liter, while high-octane petrol is being sold for as high as 1,500 sums. (The market exchange rate is about 2,220 sums to the dollar, while the official rate is approximately 1,600 sums per dollar.)
“They [gas station owners] can deceive us drivers, but they cannot deceive our cars,” said a driver commenting on the scheme. He and others complain about the decreased performance from their “high-octane” purchases.
On the street, drivers see a connection to the recent shakeup at Zeromax GmbH – the Swiss-registered conglomerate believed to have links to Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s eldest daughter Gulnara "GooGoosha" Karimova – and a campaign they say is underway against businessmen in the country.
“Everything started when Adil was placed under arrest,” one driver asserted, referring to the sudden demise of Zeromax and its former executive director, Miradil Djalalov. Independent websites reported that Djalalov had fled the country after being briefly detained last March, but some observers believe he is simply lying low.