A severe shortage of natural gas and electricity has caused unprecedented protests in parts of Uzbekistan recently with small crowds blocking roads and demanding that officials end the crisis.
Anti-government protests are extremely rare in the Central Asian country where security forces brutally cracked down on a rally in the eastern city of Andijon in 2005 that left hundreds dead.
The latest protests began when natural-gas supplies were cut off to households and businesses in many regions in November as people were already trying to deal with an electricity shortage amid dropping temperatures.
On December 1, a group of protesters — including many women — blocked a highway in the town of Buston in the country’s sprawling Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan.
Video obtained by RFE/RL shows traffic halted as protesters set fire to a pile of bushes and tree branches in the middle of the road in the town, which is the administrative center of the Elikqala district.
Several residents who took part in the protest told RFE/RL that the crowd dispersed after the local governor came to speak to protesters.
“I think we stayed there for about two hours and then the governor and police officials came,” said one protester on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “They told us that ‘there are gas shortage issues everywhere now but we’re going to resolve this problem.’ After that people left.”
No Concrete Answers
A local official, who refused to give his name, told RFE/RL on December 2 that the district government summoned “officials from all sectors to address the problem” immediately after the protest.
Sources in Buston told RFE/RL that natural-gas distribution has improved slightly since that time.
In the capital, Tashkent, President Shavkat Mirziyoev and Prime Minister Abdulla Oripov criticized officials because of the energy crisis, Uzbek media reported, but it remains unclear what concrete measures the government is taking to address people’s grievances.
The top leaders also didn’t also explain what authorities believe was the root cause of the crippling energy crisis.
Oripov acknowledged that many regions have been left with no or inadequate supplies of natural gas and electricity as winter approaches.
While households, schools, and hospitals face an energy crisis, “the officials who are responsible for providing electricity and gas are sitting inside warm offices themselves,” Oripov said on November 28.
The December 1 protest in Buston came three days after some 70 residents in the village of Shortanbai in Karakalpakstan’s Nukus district blocked a highway, starting a large fire in the middle of the road.
The villagers were angry with a sudden interruption of natural-gas supplies to their homes.
Uzbek media reported that the district governor and chief prosecutor as well as the head of the Karakalpakstangaz joint stock company met with the protesters to explain the reasons behind the energy problem and offer solutions.
The officials reportedly told the crowd that a 16-kilometer section of the pipeline that carries gas to the village needed major renovations.
The local government reportedly provided 420 disadvantaged families with 500 kilos of coal, two gas cylinders, and 10 carts of firewood each.
Similar protests took place in the Andijon, Ferghana, and Sirdaryo provinces in recent days.
“We don’t have gas and electricity in our homes and people are angry about it,” said an Andijon resident on November 28 as protesters blocked a highway connecting the city’s Dalvarzin and Oltinkul districts.
“City officials promised the protesters they will resolve the problem. People now say that they will take to the streets again if the government doesn’t keep its promise,” the Andijon resident said.
“People can’t take it any longer,” said the man, who didn’t want to disclose his name for security reasons.
‘A Matter Of Life And Death’
In Ferghana, a group of residents gathered at the city mayor’s office to complain about inadequate gas supplies in 29 high-rise buildings in the city’s Barkamol neighborhood.
“Some of the apartments don’t have gas at all…in some others the gas pressure is so low that you can’t even boil water to make tea,” one resident told RFE/RL.
Ferghana authorities said they were taking measures to improve the situation after meeting with residents.
In the southeastern Surkhondaryo Province, the air temperature dropped to minus 5 degrees Celsius the night of November 27, but residents of high-rise buildings had no energy to heat their homes, local people said.
“In hospitals, schools, and nurseries, the lack of gas is a matter of life and death,” said one Surkhondaryo official, who deals with gas-distribution issues.
“In Surkhondaryo there are also strategic sites, such as border-guard services, that must not be left without energy supplies,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.