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Ahead of election, Uzbeks remain skeptical

Ahead of election, Uzbeks remain skeptical

As 35-year-old Zuhra headed out to stock up on apricot wood logs for her fire, efforts by the local authorities to ensure gas for residents ahead of elections left her unmoved.
Ahead of a presidential poll today, in which Uzbek President Islam Karimov is virtually sure to prolong his rule, this hardline state's authorities have been at pains to ensure gas for villages that in some cases have gone without for years.
This Central Asian state is rich in natural gas and a major exporter of gas to Russia. But it is common in winter for residents to be left shivering in their homes as the gas runs out and outdoor temperatures plummet.
Local authorities often make a special effort however for special occasions, such as a visit by Karimov, or, in the current case, for Sunday's poll.
Zuhra, a mother-of-three who earns US$50 a month as a laboratory technician, admits that seeing how some neighbours have had warm homes in recent weeks, she has toyed with paying to have her home connected to the mains supply.
But experience has taught her not to get too enthusiastic.
"What if the gas pipes go empty again after the elections? Lots of people round here have dismantled their heating systems and sold the parts," she said.
"My house is not connected to the gas pipeline, which is around 100 meters away and empty most of the time," she explained as she headed to a row of trucks, tractors and scooter-trailers offering wood.
"Let's wait and see," she said.
Critics say today's election offers no real choice as the alternatives to Karimov, who has ruled for nearly two decades, are just token opponents, while his genuine challengers have been driven underground or into exile.
Occasionally it is possible for local people to have a short-term influence on issues such as gas supply by launching small protests.
Zuhra recalls that residents of her district, located in the volatile Fergana Valley, have themselves held such protests. In such instances local industries are told to briefly reduce their consumption so that enough reaches households for a while.
"We had gas for about a week," she recalled of one protest.
The country's few remaining human rights activists report that low-level protests occurred frequently last winter over problems with heating.
"In many towns and villages gas pipes are no more than a monument to Uzbekistan's rich natural resources," said Abdusalom Ergashev, a rights activist from Fergana city.
As for the current improvement in supplies, "most people are sure that this generosity with gas and electricity will not last long," he told AFP by telephone.
There are several reasons for the shortages. Uzbekistan produces 60 billion cubic meters of gas a year, but exports a substantial chunk of this: about 10 billion cubic meters, most of which goes to Russia.
Meanwhile inefficient domestic industries gobble up about 80 percent of the gas consumed inside the country, according to an anonymous economic analyst.
Finally there are problems with the ageing network used to distribute gas to a population that is on the rise. With almost 28 million people, Uzbekistan has by far the largest population among the ex-Soviet Central Asian states.
"In fact," said the economist, "very little gas goes to private households. And there are always problems with payments, even though gas here is much cheaper than elsewhere."
The economist says reforms are being carried out after the gas industry was reorganized last year to make the gas exporting company also responsible for domestic supplies.
But in Yangikurgan, Zuhra says she will think hard before paying to connect her home to an unreliable gas system.
Her husband, like many other Uzbek men, is forced to work in neighbouring Kazakhstan to make ends meet while she looks after the children.
"If the gas supply remains regular after the elections, then we'll start saving up to be connected," she said as she purchased a US$65 load of wood.


Updated : 2021-06-14 10:01 GMT+08:00