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Southern Kyrgyzstan's Dark Ages

Tens of thousands of households in southern Kyrgyzstan have been making do without natural gas for cooking, and worries have begun about heating homes when the summer sun has gone.

by Bakyt Ibraimov 4 July 2014

OSH, Kyrgyzstan | For Zhainagul Arykbaeva, preparing food lately has meant getting creative.


Since April, when neighboring Uzbekistan cut off the natural gas supply to southern Kyrgyzstan, Arykbaeva has been using her electric cooking equipment when it works – and the oldest cooking equipment of all, fire, when it doesn’t.


“We have to prepare food using an electric stove, because what else can we do?” said the 32-year-old mother of three, who lives in the southern city of Osh. “Fortunately, it’s summer, and the electricity isn’t cut off so often, but sometimes there are blackouts. When that happens we cook food and make tea on an open fire outside.”


For months Zhainagul Arykbaeva has had to find things to burn in order to cook for her family over an open flame. Photo by Bakyt Ibraimov.


Arykbaeva said she first used surplus furniture as firewood, then moved on to some trash that was kept in the basement of the five-story block of flats where she lives with her three children. With that exhausted, her family has now begun to cut down dead trees near the river.


“All of this causes inconvenience and physical hardships. Acrid smoke burns my eyes; there’s no even heating, and you need to constantly monitor the hearth to prevent food from burning. The fire makes dishes dirty and difficult to wash,” she said. “In short, it’s causing a lot of discomfort.”


Hundreds of thousands of people in southern Kyrgyzstan have been in the same, uncomfortable boat since Uzbekistan turned off the gas after Kyrgyzstan sold its state-owned KyrgyzGas company to Russian energy giant Gazprom.


“More than 65,000 gas consumers in Batken and Osh provinces remain without gas,” KyrgyzGas spokesman Rysbek Arunov said. “And we don’t know yet when gas supply will resume.”


“Gas consumers” in this case are not individuals but households – usually four to 10 people, as two to three generations often live in one house. Apartments generally have three to five people each. And those are only the private consumers. Day care and school administrators as well as restaurant and café owners are also in a bind.


Nail Mirzakhmedov, normally a guard for a kindergarten in Osh, said the school’s administrators have asked him to help prepare food on an outdoor hearth for the 200 children who attend the school.


“The first meals of the day, like soups, are cooked on the electric stove, but we have to cook the day’s main dishes on the hearth to avoid putting a big load on the electrical supply network,” he explained, adding that the city’s electrical grid can generally handle the electricity needed for lighting but not for cooking, too.


In local canteens and restaurants the hassle of cooking al fresco is compounded by the additional cost of procuring firewood.


“I’m used to cooking this way,” said Abdulaziz Rakhimov, a 64-year-old chef who uses two large cauldrons over a fire to cook a locally popular Uzbek pilaf dish and pirozhek, steamed potatoes with meat. “But certainly it’s easier and more convenient to use gas for cooking. You can easily adjust the flame, and cooking on open fire using firewood is more difficult and requires special skills. In addition, the prices for firewood have recently jumped up. We do hope that the gas supply from Uzbekistan will be resumed by the autumn.”


With southern Kyrgyzstan a pawn in the international machinations around the energy sector, whether Rakhimov’s hopes will be fulfilled is anyone’s guess.


After years of discussions, Kyrgyzstan and Russia signed an agreement to transfer the assets of KyrgyzGas to Russia’s Gazprom in 2013. As part of the agreement, Gazprom pledged some 20 billion rubles ($583 million) to improve Kyrgyzstan’s energy industry and bail out KyrgyzGas’ approximately $40 million in debt. In exchange, the Kyrgyzstani government agreed to sell the company for a symbolic $1, creating KyrgyzGazprom in April of this year.


Almost immediately, the Uzbekistani energy company UzTransGas halted gas delivery to southern Kyrgyzstan, citing the expiration of its contract and the sale of KyrgyzGas.


KyrgyzGas spokesman Arunov said the agreement with Gazprom obliges the Russian giant to provide an uninterrupted supply of gas to southern Kyrgyzstan. Local media have reported that negotiations between Gazprom and UzTransGas are ongoing, but official sources within Gazprom as well as the media in Uzbekistan have remained silent on the subject.


The continued silence about progress toward a solution is prompting some lawmakers to speak out about the deal that transferred KyrgyzGas into Russian hands. Many members of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament believe that Kyrgyzstani President Almazbek Atambaev – who was widely quoted as saying, “We need gas, not KyrgyzGas” when the subject first arose – initiated the sale.


“During the ratification of the given agreement, 15 parliamentarians and I were against the deal,” Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, a member of an opposition parliamentary group called the Democrats, said. “We argued that you cannot sell a strategic monopoly to another country and that purchasing gas without intermediaries is necessary to maintain good neighborly relations with Uzbekistan.”


Abdrakhmanov charged that Russia wanted to buy KyrgyzGas not only for economic reasons but also for political purposes. Such a transfer of strategic assets into the hands of another country risks Kyrgyzstan’s sovereignty and its relations with its larger, more powerful neighbor, Uzbekistan, he said.


“When selling our gas industry, the government did not ask the opinion of the Uzbekistani side. At the same time, they assured us that if Uzbekistan did stop the flow of gas, Gazprom would secure an uninterrupted supply of gas,” Abdrakhmanov said.


Another opposition lawmaker, Kurmanbek Osmonov, told in early June that before selling KyrgyzGas to Gazprom, the government should have thought about further steps and prolonged the gas agreement with Uzbekistan or made a new one.


“This is the way it should have been,” Osmonov was quoted as saying. “And now Kyrgyzstani officials headed by Prime Minister Dzhoomart Otorbaev say that they [Uzbeks] do not answer the phone and do not talk to them. Well, they are right not to. Who should they talk to if there are no contractual relations? At the end of the day, the population of the south suffers. Now you need to take immediate steps, to go cap in hand to Uzbekistan. It is necessary to take responsibility.”


During a visit to Osh on 19 June, Atambaev pledged assistance to the residents of gas-strapped southern Kyrgyzstan while noting that a new gas supply route from Talas in the northwest to the southern regions is under consideration.


“We need to have a little patience and the south of Kyrgyzstan will be provided with gas,” quoted Atambaev as saying on 20 June. “In the near future, if need be, the government will provide electric stoves for apartment buildings, and private houses will be provided with liquefied gas.”


Unfortunately, the price for liquefied gas – which must be transported from Kazakhstan or Russia – is about three times that of natural gas, according to Zina Azimkulova, the deputy head of the Osh Gas Department.


“In addition, the owners of private houses will have to purchase special gas regulators,” Azimkulova said.


Meanwhile, the stopgap use of electricity as a replacement for gas has kept Oshelectro, the local electric utility, from temporarily shutting down the electricity during the summer for routine repairs on transformers.


“This season we haven’t started such repairs yet because we understand that now it’s impossible to disconnect our consumers, otherwise disturbances or protests may begin,” Oshelectro spokesman Talgat Alikhanov said.


The delayed repairs could eventually lead to an energy collapse, Alikhanov warned.


“We’ve already seen the load increasing on the network, and some transformers have failed. It takes time to repair them, and while we repair them, more of them fail. Consumers have already guessed what’s going to happen this coming winter,” Alikhanov said.


Osh mother of three Zhainagul Arykbaeva said she worries about the coming winter. If there is no gas and electricity, she will have to take her children to her relatives in a village, where there is firewood as well as dung, which can also be burned for fuel.


“Let’s hope we city residents have gas in our apartments before winter comes,” Arykbaeva said. “After all, we live in the 21st century, not in the Middle Ages.”  

Bakyt Ibraimov is a freelance journalist in Osh.

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