Eighteen years might seem long enough to let bygones be bygones, even for utility bills.
So it’s little surprise that apartment dwellers in Jizzakh, a city in Uzbekistan midway between Tashkent and Samarkand, reacted with disbelief when they received notices recently that they owed money for services suspended almost two decades ago.
“We couldn’t believe the city sent us a hot water bill,” one resident told RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service on January 4, one day after he received the notice. “If I am not mistaken, the hot water supply was cut off to our building in 1999. That was 18 years ago, when I was a 1-year-old baby.”
Like many Uzbeks, he preferred not to give his name in a country where press freedoms are severely curtailed and people are routinely punished for criticizing authorities.
The overdue notices, sent out by the municipal energy company, warned the apartment dwellers that if they did not pay they could face fines and liens on their property.
The amount owed was 386,000 Uzbek soms in one case, equivalent to $120 and a sizable figure in a country where the average annual income is around $2,500.
When I asked how I was supposed to still have receipts for what I paid 18 years ago, he simply said, ‘That’s your problem’ and said if I couldn’t prove I paid before I would have to pay now.
The notices struck residents as particularly surreal because they have been living without water from the city heating plant since it cut off supplies to their buildings 18 years ago without explanation. Many families furnish their own heat by burning coal in makeshift wood stoves as winter temperatures routinely plunge below freezing. In some cases, the residents say, they have long since removed useless radiators from their walls and sold them for cash to buy fuel.
One resident told RFE/RL privately that he went to the offices of the energy provider — the Jizzakh Heating Authority — to ask why they were suddenly sending him overdue bill statements.
“The representative told me that if you bring your old receipts showing you have already paid, then everything will be fine,” he said. “But when I asked how I was supposed to still have receipts for what I paid 18 years ago, he simply said, ‘That’s your problem’ and said if I couldn’t prove I paid before I would have to pay now.”
The Jizzakh Heating Authority, which is part of the local government, has issued no public explanation for why it waited almost two decades to send out overdue notices. When contacted by RFE/RL, the head of the authority, Abduhamid Toshbulov, said only that he was aware some former customers did not welcome being contacted again.
“People are not happy and they are writing their complaints to us, to city authorities, and even to the president of the country,” Toshbulov said. “So we are asking them to bring their receipts to us so we can compare our information.”
He did not give any details about how many customers were being contacted or how many buildings in Jizzakh have been without central heat over the past decades.
Many observers see the case as symptomatic of the wider chaotic state into which much of Uzbekistan’s utility sector has fallen since the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
During the Soviet era, people in Uzbekistan and elsewhere were mostly housed in state-built apartment blocks that were provided hot water from neighborhood boiler plants. The hot water, traveling as steam through surface pipes that extended kilometers between building clusters and were shaped into arches at regular intervals to let roads pass, not only supplied water to kitchens and bathrooms but also warmed radiators.
More recently, however, much of that infrastructure, like the buildings themselves, has been collapsing from age and neglect.
The fact that many Uzbeks now have to fend for themselves by burning coal and firewood is particularly ironic, given that Uzbekistan has estimated natural gas reserves of 66 trillion cubic feet and is the third-largest gas producer in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) after Russia and Turkmenistan. The country exports gas to China, with the exports reportedly reaching a level of some 10 billion cubic meters by the end of 2015.
Uzbekistan’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyaev, has said he plans to make improving Uzbekistan’s crumbling infrastructure a priority. On a whistle-stop tour that preceded his election in December, he pledged to build homes, improve the provision of household electricity and gas, and create a more efficient transportation system.
Mirziyaev long served as prime minister under former President Islam Karimov, who died in September after more than a quarter-century of authoritarian rule marked by widespread official corruption.
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.