WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 607, April 3, 2010 CENTRAL ASIA WATER: ONE STEP FORWARD Attempts to forge region-wide consensus undermined by continuing mistrust. By Daulet Kanagatuly in Almaty, Inga Sikorskaya and Dina Tokbaeva in Bishkek, and Lola Olimova in Dushanbe
FREE SPEECH FEARS FOR KAZAKSTAN INTERNET New watchdog designed to monitor destructive website content, but could that include political debate as well as extremist literature? By Milana Orazbekova in Almaty TAJIK POWER COMPANY CALLS IN DEBTS Higher electricity bills and tougher penalties for arrears are putting pressure on household consumers. By Nazarali Pirnazarov in Dushanbe KYRGYZ GOVERNMENT FACES DOWN UTILITIES PROTESTS Poor people to be cushioned against price rises, but authorities insist everyone else must pay realistic share of energy costs. 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For more information about how you can support IWPR go to: http://iwpr.net/donate **** www.iwpr.net ******************************************************************** CENTRAL ASIA WATER: ONE STEP FORWARD Attempts to forge region-wide consensus undermined by continuing mistrust. By Daulet Kanagatuly in Almaty, Inga Sikorskaya and Dina Tokbaeva in Bishkek, and Lola Olimova in Dushanbe While recent talks between Central Asian leaders point to a newfound common will to reach agreement on how to resolve linked regional disputes over water and energy, reports that Uzbekistan is blocking rail transport to Tajikistan indicate that relations remain far from smooth. On March 22, Tajikistans foreign ministry handed the Uzbek ambassador a protest note saying large numbers of railway freight trucks were being prevented from crossing the border. The Tajiks alleged that the aim was to prevent materials reaching the Roghun dam, a massive project currently under construction. Tajikistan believes that completing the Roghun hydropower scheme, which has been stalled since the Nineties but has now resumed, and which will have the worlds highest dam, will alleviate its chronic energy shortages at a stroke. However, Uzbekistan has raised objections to the project, taking the view that major new dams like Roghun and the Kambarata-1 and -2 plants in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan could reduce water flows down the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers to a point where its agricultural economy would be deprived of irrigation. Tajik foreign ministry spokesman Davlat Nazriev said some 1,000 freight cars bound for his country had been held up over the last two months, and were still inside Uzbekistan. The deputy head of freight transport at Tajik Railways, Andrei Tronin, told the Fergana.ru news site that the wagon contained cement for the Roghun dam. In response to the protest note, quoted by the Russian Itar-Tass news agency, the Uzbek foreign ministry said the reasons for the delays were technical, not political, and stemmed from undertakings by Tashkent to facilitate shipments to Afghanistan, which had overloaded the rail network. Under a ground-breaking decision last year, Uzbekistan agreed to allow NATO to use its territory to bring in cargo for the continuing operations in Afghanistan via the so-called northern corridor, since land routes from Pakistan were becoming increasingly hazardous. The diplomatic row is only the latest manifestation of the fraught relationship between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but its timing is particularly unfortunate given that all five Central Asian states appear more willing than ever to talk about the vexed issues of water and energy. The disagreement centres on the use of transnational rivers by the countries where they originate, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the states that are located downstream and rely on the water Uzbekistan and Kazakstan and Turkmenistan. As Kazak journalist Daur Dosybiev explains, Uzbekistan and Kazakstan need water for irrigation, while the Tajiks and Kyrgyz view it as a source of electricity. The Tajiks and Kyrgyz store up water and release it downstream in winter to generate electricity. Like Uzbekistan, both Kazakstan and Turkmenistan would be affected by any change in the water supply, and they have aligned themselves, albeit cautiously, with the Uzbek demand that before the new dams are completed, they must be the subject of an international study to assess their impact on the environment. When Kazakstans president Nursultan Nazarbaev visited Tashkent on March 16-17, he backed Uzbekistans demand for an impact assessment. Kazakstan and Uzbekistan are located downstream on the Syr Darya and Amu Darya and they need guarantees of this kind, said Nazarbaev. The Kazak leader said that before visiting Uzbekistan, he held telephone conversations with the Kyrgyz and Tajik leaders, Kurmanbek Bakiev and Imomali Rahmon, both of whom had agreed to such a study. On March 12, Tajikistan signed an agreement with the World Bank for a survey that will look at the technical, economic, environmental and social impact of the Roghun dam. Nazarbaev is clearly trying to play a coordinating role in the dispute, since his country generally has better relations with other Central Asian states than Uzbekistan, and wields considerable economic power. Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov also discussed water issues on a visit to Tajikistan. Commenting on the outcome of the talks on March 18, President Rahmon said that in using the water sources that rise on its territory, Tajikistan would consider not only its own legitimate needs but also common regional interests. At one level, the dispute looks clear-cut setting two small mountainous states that want more hydroelectricity against three large ones that have oil and gas but are short of irrigation water. Yet although Uzbekistan has tried to recruit Turkmenistan and Kazakstan to its cause, neither has taken such a hard line. Sanobar Shermatova, a Central Asia expert in Moscow, said Nazarbaevs comments did not mean he had shifted to unconditional support for the Uzbek position. For a start, Kazakstan is much less dependent on the major Central Asian rivers than Uzbekistan. Its southern regions do get water from the Syr Darya which will be affected by the Kambarata schemes in Kyrgyzstan, but a new reservoir inaugurated on March 18 means it will not be so vulnerable to fluctuating water flows. And it has a lot of influence in Kyrgyzstan. In general, construction of the Kambarata hydroelectric plants does not alarm Kazakstan, said Shermatova. Given that small and impoverished Kyrgyzstan is reliant on its bigger neighbour, the two countries can be expected to reach some kind of agreement. Arkady Dubnov, a journalist in Moscow who specialises in Central Asian affairs, agrees that the Kazak leaders public support for the Uzbek position should not be taken at face value. He doubts Nazarbaev would really press for an international study if that would jeopardise Kyrgyzstans energy plans. Kazakstan is not going to take a tough stand on this issue, he said. Astana will not go against Bishkek. Similarly, Turkmenistan is unlikely to align itself firmly with either side in the dispute. Last year, its president Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov backed Uzbekistans demand for an international study, and this will colour its relationship with Tajikistan even as the latter seeks to buy gas and electricity supplies from it. For the moment, the real differences are between Uzbekistan on the one hand and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the other. As Shermatova pointed out, Uzbekistans geographical location and agriculture-intensive economy make it dependent on water coming from both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Andrei Grozin, head of the Central Asian department at the Commonwealth of Independent States Institute in Moscow, said the Roghun plant alarms Tashkent more than the Kambarata schemes in Kyrgyzstan, because the sheer size of the dam and reservoir could give Tajikistan considerable leverage in the region. Tashkents strategy is clear by demanding an international study, it wants to drag this project out, he said. As the United Nations marked World Water Day on March 22, Uzbek and Tajik officials exchanged barbed comments. Uzbekistans UN ambassador said the Kyrgyz and Tajik dams were based on outdated plans conceived in the Soviet era. Moreover, not enough attention is being paid to the negative impact such sites will have on preserving the ecological balance in the region, he said. Tajik prime-minister Akil Akilov, who attended the UN meeting, complained that Uzbekistan was holding up freight on the railway and dismissed suggestions that there were other reasons for the delay. In reality, it is all tied to the issue of water and energy use, he said. Recent statements by the Central Asian presidents suggest they are beginning to feel their way towards a solution that would suit everyone. However, acrimonious relations between Uzbekistan and its Tajik and Kyrgyz neighbours spurred by Tashkents concern that its legitimate interests are being ignored could delay a settlement. Daulet Kanagatuly is an IWPR-trained reporter in Almaty. Inga Sikorskaya, Dina Tokbaeva and Lola Olimova are IWPR editors. FREE SPEECH FEARS FOR KAZAKSTAN INTERNET New watchdog designed to monitor destructive website content, but could that include political debate as well as extremist literature? By Milana Orazbekova in Almaty A newly set-up internet watchdog in Kazakstan is an attempt to censor an important source of independent news and comment, media rights groups and journalists say. The Centre for Computer Incidents will operate under the Agency for Information Technology and Communications, and officials say it is tasked solely with identifying websites that carry extremist material or pornography. Unveiling the centre on March 1, the communications agencys head Kuanishbek Yesekeev said its purpose was to regulate destructive resources. Agency spokesperson Janar Kondratenko elaborated, telling IWPR, The centres staff members will monitor websites, and those which disseminate religious and political extremism, or pornography, will receive a warning that their information platform contains information that is against Kazakstan law. They will be obliged to remove such information. Kondratenko insisted that the Centre for Computer Incidents would act entirely within the law, and would not be used to pursue opposition supporters. The new centre is being seen as a practical step toward implementing legislation passed last year which reclassified internet content so that it was subject to the same regulations as print and broadcast media. This means that like conventional media outlets, websites are prohibited from publishing classified information, terrorist propaganda, and incitement to overthrow the government. The law also empowers the authorities to block foreign websites if the contents are deemed to contravene domestic law. Opponents of the move fear that authorities could interpret computer incidents to include anything critical of the regime. What does destructive resources mean? asked Almaty-based sociologist Gaziz Nasyrov, referring to the phrase used by Yesekeev. Any criticism of the authorities could be included within this category, and I suspect thats what is going to happen. Tatiana Burdel, director of Media Ontystik, a non-government group in the southern city of Shymkent, said the authorities had a habit of using vague, catch-all terminology to cover all eventualities, and described the new internet monitoring centre as another noose around the presss throat. Ali Dosaev, political editor of the Tauport.kz website, fears that any critical reporting risks being construed as political extremism or destructive. He said that as a journalist, he could easily land in trouble if he wrote something about the succession to President Nazarbaev, whose current term in office runs out in 2012. I believe that changeovers in power are a cornerstone of democracy. But if I express a view on this without contravening the constitution or the criminal code, I could still end being categorised as an extremist, said Dosaev. The head of the MediaNet Centre for Journalism in Kazakstan, Vyacheslav Abramov, says the decision to impose controls on web content was not unexpected. Working from their own concept of freedom of expression, the authorities want to control this information sector, he said. Abramov noted the irritation caused when disgraced senior officials use the web to publish allegations about the Kazak leadership. In 2008, President Nursultan Nazarbaevs former son-in-law Rahat Aliev fled abroad and was later found guilty in absentia of kidnapping, embezzlement and organised crime. From exile, he set about getting his revenge by publishing allegations about Kazakstans leaders, including a book about the president which appeared on the internet last year. A government official who wished to remain anonymous said the recent allegations by Aliev and others had come as a shock to the authorities, who had not anticipated that their opponents would use the web to wage virtual war on them. In a country where barely one-third of factories are running and the mood of protest is on the rise . compromising information that appears on the internet can only fuel popular discontent, he said. Milana Orazbekova is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kazakstan. TAJIK POWER COMPANY CALLS IN DEBTS Higher electricity bills and tougher penalties for arrears are putting pressure on household consumers. By Nazarali Pirnazarov in Dushanbe Although winter power cuts in Tajikistan have ended earlier than expected, electricity users are still having to economise due to higher prices and tougher rules on late payment. On March 22, the state power company Barqi Tojik announced that the restrictions in place since November had been lifted 40 days earlier than expected. The announcement was timed to coincide with the start of celebrations for Navruz, the traditional new year. The restrictions meant electricity was limited to ten hours a day everywhere, with the exception of a few large towns. Tajikistan has imposed seasonal power cuts for several years as it relies mainly on hydroelectricity, and in winter water levels are lower while consumption increases. Barqi Tojik said it was possible to restore the full supply because water levels in the Nurek reservoir had proved adequate. The Nurek dam generates about 70 per cent of Tajikistans electricity. Other reasons for the improvement, it said, were the launch of the Sangtuda-1 power station in January 2009, and the nationwide switchover to energy-saving light bulbs. Although customers were relieved to hear the news, they are under greater pressure than ever to watch their electricity consumption, as prices increased dramatically at the beginning of the year by 20 per cent for domestic consumers and up to 25 per cent for others. The state electricity company is also taking tougher action to ensure consumers pay their bills. Late payment will incur a fine, while those who persistently fail to pay will have their supply cut off. Barqi Tojik head Abdullo Yorov has set a target of 90 per cent collection for payments due this year. The companys chief press officer, Nozirjon Yodgori told IWPR that as of January, unpaid bills amounted to 114 million US dollars. However, IWPR enquiries suggest the penalties will not be applied evenly, and that householders will be in the first line of fire. A Barqi Tojik representative who spoke on condition of anonymity told IWPR that domestic consumers are the only group the company can really put pressure on. Two major customers, the state-owned aluminium plant at Tursunzoda and the water ministry, which arranges irrigation for farmers around the country, are virtually untouchable because their economic role is so essential. Aluminium production is hugely energy-hungry the availability of cheap hydroelectricity was the reason the Soviet authorities decided to site the plant in Tajikistan in the first place. The giant Tursunzade plant continues to be a major source of foreign currency which cash-strapped Tajikistan can ill afford to do without, so switching off the power is not really an option. Cotton is another important export earner, and other forms of agriculture are important for the domestic market. Providing water for irrigation requires electrically-powered pumps to be running. As the Barqi Tojik representative member said, If we cut them off, the irrigation season will be disrupted and that in turn will have a negative impact on the harvest. Householders, meanwhile, say they are being hard hit by the rise in prices. In Tajikistan, the poorest of the former Soviet republics, more than half the population lives on less than two dollars a day, the measure the World Bank uses to define poverty. Even a modest increase in outlay leaves many households struggling. Rustam Saidov, from Dushanbe, said his family was trying to limit electricity usage to the minimum. Instead of two heaters I now use one, and I use one lighbulb in the living room instead of four. I used to buy 100-watt bulbs, and now I use 60-watt, he said. Saadullo Abdullo, who lives in Rudaki, 15 kilometres from the capital, earns 130 dollars a month to provide for his wife and three children, and supplements this by raising livestock and growing vegetables. He nearly had his electricity cut off because he owed 20 somonis, the equivalent of four dollars. I have to deny myself certain things and economise, he said. Alisher, by contrast, is relatively comfortably off as a businessman in Dushanbe. But even he is feeling the pinch. He used to spend about 50 dollars a month on electricity bills, but since January this has more than doubled to reach nearly 130 dollars. Ive told all my family to economise, he told IWPPR. But how can we not heat the house while the weather is still cold. And I have small children who could fall ill. So were having to save on other things. A representative of Energosbyt, the company that collects electricity payments, confirmed that customers were having difficulty keeping up with payments. We are not meeting our collection quota, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Our staff spend days going door to door demanding payment, but peoples purchasing power has fallen sharply compared with last year. People dont have any money. As a result, he said, We are forced to cut off homes from the electricity supply. He added that this particularly affected rural areas. Dushanbe resident Saodat said payment collectors were swift to cut people off even for a small amount of arrears. Before my very eyes, [they] cut off the power from my neighbours house, who owed no more than 50 somoni, she said. Pleas or promises to clear the debt quickly didnt work. She works as a cleaner at the hospital and earns a meagre wage. I lent her the money myself sp she could pay the debt. She has three small children how can she get by with no electricity, when theres no gas either. She cant cook or wash, poor thing. Saodat was not enthusiastic about the resumption of 24-hour electricity supplies when they havent thought about how the poor are going to pay for it. This spring, wage-earners have faced an additional dent in their income due to a government campaign encouraging everyone to buy shares in the Roghun hydroelectric project, with the aim of raising some 600 million dollars to finish the dam and start generating electricity. According to a rough guide used by state institutions and companies, people are being asked to buy shares to a value of approximately one months wage. IWPR reported earlier that some people said they were being coerced into buying the shares or into making a straight donation, neither of which they could afford. (See Concern at Funding Scheme for Giant Tajik Dam, RCA No. 599, 30-Dec-09.) Many of the people interviewed for this report said the share purchases had compounded their problems, making it harder for them to meet the higher electricity bills. The Energosbyt representative believes the cost of the shares is contributing to unpaid energy bills. Literally everyone is being forced to hand over their salaries to buy shares, and thats why people are becoming impoverished, he said. Nazarali Pirnazarov is a Tajikistan correspondent for the Bishkek-based CA-News news agency. KYRGYZ GOVERNMENT FACES DOWN UTILITIES PROTESTS Poor people to be cushioned against price rises, but authorities insist everyone else must pay realistic share of energy costs. By Ainagul Abdrakhmanova in Bishkek A loosely-organised campaign is under way to force Kyrgyzstans government to reverse rises for heating and electricity prices, but the authorities are refusing to back down. The prices of electricity and central heating have risen by 100 per cent and 500 per cent, respectively, since the beginning of 2010. The government says it has been forced to cut subsidies because it was costing it more to generate electricity and provide hot water than customers were paying. (See Soaring Energy Costs Anger Kyrgyz, RCA No. 604, 23-Feb-10) Public protests over the increases have been localised and appear to have been organised at grassroots level rather than by the political opposition. Some analysts see it as indicative of the state of the opposition parties that they have failed to harness the undoubted mood of public anger. The first two demonstrations took place on February 24 and March 10, in Naryn, the main town in a mountainous province that gets particular cold in winter. Adilet Eshenov, a local representative of the Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, a non-government umbrella group, said that up to 3,000 people participated in each event. A local government official said the figure for the second protest was closer to 2,000. The high price of electricity and heating also featured high on the agenda of a public meeting attended by several thousand people held in the capital Bishkek on March 17. This event, described as a kurultay or popular assembly, was overtly political as it was arranged by the main opposition bloc. As a result, a much wider range of political and civil rights concerns were aired than at the Naryn demonstrations. Further opposition rallies took place in Bishkek and in the southern city of Osh on March 23, close to the fifth anniversary of the Tulip Revolution which brought current President Kurmanbek Bakiev to power, but again, the main thrust of the demands were political rather than focused on the hardship caused by high utility prices. A new group called Movement 220 was set up by a number of NGOs at the end of February to try to kick-start a nationwide campaign of protests against the price hikes, as well as against the privatisation of Severelektro, a state-run power company, and the communications company Kyrgyztelekom. So far, Movement 220 has achieved limited success. In mid-March, supporters distributed leaflets in the capital Bishkek and urged people to wear yellow ribbons as a sign of support. It is also campaigning to gather the 300,000 signatures required to call for a referendum, but has managed just over 1,000 so far. In a separate development, leading lawyer Nurbek Toktakunov and two figures from the NGO sector have brought court actions against the government, arguing that it was in breach of the constitution when it issued a decree approving the price rises without going through a process of public consultation. The Kyrgyz government is standing firm on the basic principle that prices have to go up. But it is now pledging to ensure that the poorest sections of the population will be protected against spiralling costs. Prime Minister Daniar Usenov visited Naryn three days after the second protest, and promised to look into demands raised by activists there. He also said no electricity customer would be penalised for late payment of bills. At a press conference in Bishkek two days later, on March 15, Usenov argued that energy policy needed to be driven by purely economic considerations. Previous governments, he said, had shied away from raising prices because they did not want to deal with the political flak. On March 27, President Bakiev signed a decree introducing measures to protect low-income groups in mountainous areas and other outlying parts of the country. Unveiling the package before parliament a day earlier, Usenov said people who fell into this category would be charged half price up to a set limit of electricity consumption, and the limit would be twice as high in winter as in summer. Last month, Bakiev said he had ordered a review of the price hikes, and the findings would determine whether a second round of increases, scheduled for July would go ahead. Political analyst Nur Omarov told IWPR he thought it highly unlikely that this review would result in a recommendation against further rises. This audit is, in my view, merely an attempt to distract the population from the acute social problems, he said. The first few years of Bakievs rule were marked by large demonstrations led by opposition parties. Although Kyrgyzstan is having a tougher time than before as it tries to weather the impact of global economic crisis, and the price increases are matters of genuine public concern, recent protests have been muted. Gulnara Jurabaeva of Movement 220 argues that people are fearful of the authorities, but that given time and a solid leadership, the campaign could take off. So far, these actions have been localised and it will take time and a public figure who commands the respect and confidence of ordinary people for them to grow to a larger scale, she said, adding that there were opposition politicians who fitted the description. We are not chasing after numbers, but I am certain that this movement will gradually gain strength since there are a lot of dissatisfied people, said Jurabaeva. Omarov, however, believes people in Kyrgyzstan now harbour a distrust of political groups of any stripe. In Kyrgyzstan, there are no political parties or public [non-government] organisations which people trust, he said. That is why they arent supporting the meetings and instead prefer to quietly stay away. Political scientist Marat Kazakpaev believes the opposition, despite its weakness, will be able to take advantage of the protests. Government policy on the price rises gives the opposition an ace to play, he said. Although the opposition doesnt enjoy a lot of trust among ordinary people, it can nevertheless exploit current social and economic conditions. I dont think the mood of protest is going to decrease. Begaly Nargozuev, a member of parliament with the presidents Ak Jol party, believes the opposition is squarely behind all the protests. He says its failure to mobilise significant support despite the real public concern about price rises is a reflection on the level of trust people have in it. All the protests around the price rises are being run by the opposition it doesnt want to miss this chance, and it will do anything to gather people all over the country, using any pretext, he said. Of course people arent happy about the tariffs increasing. But the majority understand that political games are being played here. People have become wiser and more experienced, and they dont want to be a tool in the hands of politicians. Azimbek Beknazarov, a leading member of the United Peoples Movement, the main opposition bloc, insisted the protests were spontaneous grassroots affairs. People are not following parties or public [non-government] organisations, they are uniting by themselves, he said. People are against the increases and they say so openly. The problem is that the media dont report this, the TV doesnt show it and theres a sense that everyone is satisfied with everything. Following the protests in Naryn, a number of online news agencies were blocked and western broadcasters were taken off the air. This led to calls by international organisations, notably the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Reporters Without Borders, for an end to blocks on media access. Ainagul Abdrakhmanova is an IWPR-trained contributor in Kyrgyzstan. **** www.iwpr.net ******************************************************************** REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA provides the international community with a unique insiders' perspective on the region. Using our network of local journalists, the service publishes news and analysis from across Central Asia on a weekly basis. The service forms part of IWPR's Central Asia Project based in Almaty, Bishkek, Tashkent and London, which supports media development and encourages better local and international understanding of the region. IWPR's Reporting Central Asia is supported by the UK Community Fund. The service is published online in English and Russian. The opinions expressed in Reporting Central Asia are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the publication or of IWPR. 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