01/31/2008, 00.00
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Big gas exporter Uzbekistan keeping its citizens in a deep freeze

In energy-rich Uzbekistan people are freezing in the dark because of gas and power shortages. With temperatures that dip to -20 centigrade during the day and -30 at night, people’s complaints have little impact on powerless authorities.

Tashkent (AsiaNews/Agencies) – A fall in gas pressure caused by exceptionally cold weather in Uzbekistan has left many areas without heating and power, bringing protesters out into the streets to complain.

On 16 January about 300 people met in front of the Mayor’s Office in the city of Fergana in south-eastern Uzbekistan to voice their anger.

Two days later, dozens of residents of Khojeyl, in the north-western region of Karakalpakstan, blocked the main highway that runs from the provincial capital Nukus to the town of Kungrad in protest against the lack of gas in their homes.

On the same day a road was blocked by demonstrators in the Zafarabad district of Jizak region in central Uzbekistan.

And another protest was staged by apartment block residents in a district near the western city of Bukhara.

These scattered expressions of public anger are a rarity in Uzbekistan, a country where there is no political opposition and where the authorities clamp down hard on even the slightest sign of dissent.

But this is also a country that exports about 12 billion cubic metres of gas a year out of a total production of 62 with the balance going for domestic use.

This winter though distribution has been badly disrupted by bitter frosts that began in late December, which have left pipelines frozen up and gas pressure plummeting.

As people started using electric heaters, they overloaded the national power grid, so that the authorities had to institute power cuts which in turn reduced gas supplies across the country.

In the capital Tashkent kindergartens and schools had to close because the lack of gas stopped their central heating systems, which then froze up.

In Jondor district, 15 kilometres from Bukhara, a resident told the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) that without gas heating she was unable to keep her greenhouses at a stable temperature this year and thus lost her main source of income.

Office workers are not that much better off with only two or three hours of power a day.

“Today even wedding parties are held in the daytime, rather than at night when the electricity might be cut off,” said the mother of a recent bride in the north-western Khorezm region. “Apart from the wedding plov [pilaf], which is cooked in a cauldron over a fire, we weren’t able to prepare the other festive dishes in an electric oven because they’d need a lot of electric power.”

Local governments have responded to protests differently depending on the place. In Karakalpakstan, local officials met protesters and explained the reasons for the drop in pressure, promising to do their best to rectify the situation. After the protestors dispersed, the gas supply did improve for a short while. But in Khorezm’s Hazarasp district, the authorities responded to a woman’s complaint by ordering the gas supply to be cut off to all the houses in her street.

Commenting on the situation an engineer said that in “Soviet times, when there was a frost, the gas was diluted with a special admixture so that it would not freeze, so the pressure in the pipes remained at normal levels.”

In rural areas many elderly Uzbeks have resorted to warm winter clothing—traditional felt boots and sheepskin coats—that dates back to the Soviet era.

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