29 February 2008
A memorably bitter winter has Uzbeks and Tajiks protesting and worrying. From EurasiaNet.
UZBEKISTAN: AUTHORITIES BRACE FOR SPRING
by Alisher Khamidov
A winter of discontent in Uzbekistan is giving way to a spring of uncertainty.
Along with neighboring states in Central Asia, Uzbekistan was battered by fierce winter weather for the better part of three months, featuring temperatures as low as minus-20 Celsius. The Deep Freeze has now given way to the Big Drench, as uncharacteristically heavy rains have pelted the country, and are forecast to continue for up to two weeks. Many Uzbeks are now worried about the possibility of severe flooding.
The harsh weather provided a jolt that the country’s decrepit infrastructure could not easily absorb: perhaps millions of Uzbeks shivered this winter because of a lack of heating. The shortages were not caused by an energy crunch, as Uzbekistan devotes about 50 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas out of its annual production of 62 bcm for domestic consumption. Worn-out pipes frequently malfunctioned under the cold conditions. As a result, electricity consumption skyrocketed, putting enormous pressure on the county’s outdated electricity grid, with some areas reporting multiple blackouts and brownouts. All portions of the country felt the shortages of heating and electricity, but conditions were especially dire in rural areas.
The first sign of open public anger appeared on 16 January in the city of Ferghana, located in the heart of the Ferghana Valley, Uzbekistan’s breadbasket, as well as the center of radical religious sentiment. For three consecutive days, about 300 residents demonstrated in front of the city’s municipal building, venting their frustration over interruptions in gas and electricity supplies.
Later in January, a protest erupted in the town of Khojeili, a transportation hub in the western Karakalpak Autonomous Republic, and in the Zafarabad district of Jizakh Province. As part of their protest, Khojeili residents blocked the main road linking the cities of Nukus and Kungrad, lifting their barricade only after local authorities took action to ensure the delivery of electricity and gas. In addition, reports have circulated about smaller-scale demonstrations in various locales.
"In a situation where basic needs are unmet, people have little to lose and are willing to take out their anger at government," said an Uzbek resident who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity.
Most of the protesters were women, according to local observers, who added that the demonstrations were organized locally and showed no signs of being part of a coordinated campaign against the government. Even so, the protests underscore the tenuous social balance that exists in Uzbekistan. Officials have long relied on repression to contain various threats to the administration’s authority, most notably Islamic radicalism. But Karimov’s focus on security has caused the economy to suffer, and now developments may have reached a point where a significant portion of the population is willing to speak out.
In confronting demonstrators, the government eschewed shows of force. It helped that the recent protests, unlike previous political demonstrations, were narrowly focused on local social and economic problems, and did not contain any direct challenges to central authorities in Tashkent.
Rather than encourage decisive government action against protesters, Karimov and his lieutenants pursued a more populist course. On 2 February, for example, Karimov fired Adiljan Allayarov, the mayor of Ferghana. Some observers suggested that Allayarov’s removal was directly linked to his failure to resolve the energy emergency in the city, and was therefore an act intended to send a message to the political bosses of other cities and provinces.
Karimov may now be casting about to find the right balance of preventative measures to keep popular protests from ever posing a genuine threat to his authority. As long as protests remain random and disjointed, his administration has little to fear, observers say. But he might quickly find himself in serious trouble, if those angry with his policies were to ever coordinate their actions.
"The lack of organized opposition, [and] the inability of the protesters to forge a cohesive protest plan, backed by a clearly articulated alternative vision for the country’s future development, means that the protests stand little chance of attracting broad nationwide support," according to an exiled Uzbek opposition activist who spoke to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity.
TAJIKISTAN: WINTER BRINGS FEARS OF PESTILENCE AND HUNGER
by Konstantin Parshin and Kambiz Arman
The United Nations is stepping in to try to rescue Tajikistan from a social catastrophe brought on by severe winter weather. But even if an emergency UN appeal for assistance generates a robust international response, it is questionable whether Tajikistan will be able to avoid entering a downward spiral, featuring pestilence and widespread hunger.
On 18 February, the UN issued a “flash appeal,” calling for an immediate international infusion of $25.1 million in assistance to Tajikistan. “At least 260,000 people are in need of immediate food assistance,” the appeal stated grimly.
“Moreover, the government reports that up to 2 million people may require food assistance through the end of the winter, if limited food and fuel supplies in rural areas are not replenished.” In all, almost one-third of the country’s population of just over 7 million is in need of some form of assistance.
In recent days, the harsh weather, which has routinely seen temperatures of minus-20 Celsius, has exhibited signs of easing. But in discussing the condition of the country’s social and economic infrastructure, no matter what happens the rest of the winter, grievous harm has already been done. Dushanbe and other urban centers enjoy only a few hours of electricity a day, and hydropower generators will be able to operate at no more than 40 percent capacity at least until the onset of spring.
Gulomjon Bobozoda, Tajikistan’s Economic Development and Trade Minister, admitted at an 18 February news conference that the chronic power shortage was bound to have a “cumulative effect” on the economy. He added that it was too early to provide an accurate damage assessment.
Meanwhile, Matlubkhon Davlatov, a senior aide to President Imomali Rahmon, acknowledged the government’s concern about a looming food crisis. “Industrial enterprises and the agrarian sector are in critical condition,” Davlatov said.
The National Bank of Tajikistan has estimated the weather-related economic loss at $250 million in January and February alone, a calamitous figure in a country where the annual state budget is roughly $610 million, according to CIA estimates. The national bank added that the deep freeze has destroyed cotton fields, which are a major source of income for the country. In addition, farmland and private garden plots have been ravaged.
Representatives of the World Food Program and the World Health Organization have cautioned that livestock and poultry have suffered severely during the winter, estimating that production of milk and eggs could experience a 50 percent drop-off. In addition, many Tajiks are grappling with the initial stage of hunger, in which they are spending more than ever on food, but eating less, with many eating only once a day.
Inflation remains an alarming problem. The price of wheat in Tajikistan, for example, climbed 70 percent during 2007. The damage caused to the country’s agricultural infrastructure this winter could cause the inflation rate to rapidly accelerate in the spring and summer.
Likewise, experts express concern that once all the snow that fell this winter starts to melt, the country’s already overtaxed sewer and water-supply systems will collapse.
At the 18 February news conference, Michael Jones, the resident UN coordinator for Tajikistan, warned of a high probability of future calamities, especially outbreaks of typhoid and other waterborne infectious diseases.
Jones said that 64 percent of Tajikistan’s population subsists on less than $2 per day, while 41 percent did not have access to reliable drinking water.
Various U.S. government agencies have already pledged about $2.5 million in aid, or about one-tenth of the appeal’s target. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) intends to provide Tajikistan with fuel, heaters, clothing, household supplies, and health services valued at about $830,000. The State Department has also arranged for about $1.6 million in food aid to be delivered.
Coverage of the crisis by state-controlled media outlets has been muted, with a notable lack of criticism of official policies. But on the streets of Dushanbe, Tajiks are seething.
“We have double standards in our society,” said a Dushanbe lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We see a number of new construction sites in Dushanbe … Five-star hotels being erected … And we see the fancy cars and homes in the city.
“Everybody knows who these things belong to. These ‘masters of life’ control the economy, but they are deaf to the people’s cries,” the lawyer continued. “In the spring we will be facing another serious threat – dirty water from taps. And somebody will be appealing again for international assistance. It happens time and again.”
This partner post was compiled from articles on EurasiaNet. Alisher Khamidov is a Ph.D. candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington D.C. Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Dushanbe. Kambiz Arman is the pseudonym for a Tajik journalist.