Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous nation, has had the coldest winter and longest energy shortages in memory. In December and January, at the height of the crisis, people around the country told VOA the government was failing at its basic function – delivering gas and electricity “when most needed.” “I’ve never been this angry with the state. It has no value for me right now,” said Diyor, 28, an IT specialist in the capital, Tashkent, who like others in this article asked to be identified by only one name for fear of retaliation.
“I understand many of our problems require time to solve, but I refuse to cope with no gas or power at home,” said Diyor “Shouldn’t the state ensure the supply of at least one of these? We pay for them!” Authorities have attributed the problems to the unprecedented cold weather – what Uzbek media have termed an “anomalous winter” – but the public has not been satisfied with that answer.
“I came back from Europe two years ago believing that Uzbekistan was taking the right direction,” said Yunus, 34, another angry Tashkenter. “I trusted President Shavkat Mirziyoyev when he said we were building a new Uzbekistan. But Uzbekistan has not had gas and electricity for weeks. The government does not seem to care.” Walking through Tashkent’s central neighborhoods alongside Tashkent Mayor Jakhongir Artikhojayev in December, the president scolded his subordinates for not serving the population. “Because of some irresponsible officials, our entire system gets denigrated,” he said. Artikhojayev was fired a month later.
The government admits this has been a brutal season, with low gas pressure, power cuts and fuel shortages. The Energy Ministry has blamed a long list of factors for the problems: supply not meeting demand, infrastructure failures, production reductions because of extreme cold, import halts, and political and economic challenges. On January 24, Tashkent signed a “road map” with Russia’s Gazprom that, as Uzbekistan’s Energy Minister Jurabek Mirzamahmudov put it, aims to assess existing pipelines and logistical-technical options. “If they bring the gas to our door for an acceptable price, we will take it, otherwise not,” Mirzamahmudov said of the arrangement.
Explanations from the Energy Ministry that the system is going through extensive reforms have been met with skepticism. “What reforms? This year’s deficiency has been wider and longer than ever,” said 30-something Sherzod, waiting in a line at least two kilometers long to refuel his car outside Tashkent. “If we are reforming, should not conditions be improving? It’s been like this all winter.”
Throughout January, in Tashkent and other places, VOA heard rural and urban Uzbeks cursing the state and its leadership – not just privately, but on public transportation and in restaurants and teahouses, stores and salons, schools and universities, on the streets and in municipal offices. Rural dwellers said they prepare themselves mentally and practically for some cuts each winter, but this year the cities have also experienced shortages. Frustrated residents “felt helpless” when providers asked them to be patient.
“We have been waiting for days,” said Kamola, 32. “Water lines are frozen without energy. I feel like we are in this crisis forever and this system does nothing.” These residents did not see new appointments made by Mirziyoyev during the crisis as steps toward a solution. “Where is gas? Where is power? I heard Mirziyoyev. … Good that he admits the failures of his government, but words won’t warm us,” said Barchinoy, 60, whose family moved to a newly constructed rental equipped with a generator. “Costly for sure, but we have grandchildren.” “Why have my parents and grandparents been shivering at home?” asked Fatima, 21, a university student who is unhappy about her studies moving online and her siblings missing school. “It’s -20 Celsius out. No gas, and the voltage so low that we can’t even use an electric heater.”
The situation started to improve in early February, with warmer temperatures. But long lines and hours of waiting for fuel persisted. But in the Ferghana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan, home to more than 10 million people, there was limited sympathy. “We’ve long been living in such harsh conditions. We burn coal and wood. Power cuts are daily occurrences here,” said Sharifa, 45, a mother of two. “Perhaps those in the capital feel some empathy toward the people of the valley now.”
The Uzbek parliament remained a passive observer throughout the crisis without any hearings on this predicament. Several lawmakers told VOA they were aware of the issues. A February 9 investigative report by Radio Liberty, VOA’s sister organization, exposed corruption in Uzbekistan’s oil and gas sector with hundreds of pages of documents, highlighting that the key beneficiaries “are opaque companies controlled by Uzbek and Russian political insiders, including a billionaire confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin.” Radio Liberty’s findings infuriated the public. The Uzbek government has refuted some parts of the report, claiming that it misinterpreted agreements with investors, specifically the terms and costs. Energy Minister Mirzamahmudov said the country’s more than 250 energy fields are run by the state-owned Uzbekneftegaz, not the Russian companies.
But Tashkent has yet to respond to other findings in the report, which said the Mirziyoyev administration “was warned as early as three years ago that his ambitious projects to boost gas and oil output were riddled with problems.” It also said a secret interagency study had warned that “multibillion-dollar deals struck under the president’s major energy initiatives risked the country’s energy security.”
Political analyst Kamoliddin Rabbimov, who discussed Radio Liberty’s findings with the officials, said “the system must be as transparent as possible, explaining the deals and investments.” Rabbimov is also urging the public to refrain from emotional outrage. Yet he appreciates the social media debate and diverse opinion in today’s Uzbekistan. “Critical thinking is on the rise in our society,” he wrote on Facebook. “Deeply rooted fear in our social mindset is diminishing.”
People freely expressing and sharing views on political issues, he argued, needs to be reinforced. In a society that has long lived under authoritarianism, citizens questioning their leaders is nothing but reassuring. Ilyos Safarov, known for his wide-ranging political coverage on Kun.uz, a leading private media outlet, welcomed the government’s willingness to explain its position. “But the lack of expertise in crisis management and fear-driven practices exacerbate the situation,” he wrote on Telegram. Like Rabbimov and others, including some in the government, Safarov said the authorities must be accountable to the public and address critical questions on time.