Kyrgyz deputies struggling to introduce a draft law to reduce exports of scrap metals believe they are being hindered by corrupt officials.
Rising prices have led to a steep rise in demand for metals in the former Soviet republic, leading to crime as people steal electricity cables and even dig up radioactive machinery to sell to scrap dealers.
One teenager, who is currently on trial for theft in the town of Sokuluk, is alleged to have emptied a metal canister belonging to a cattle breeding company in order to sell it to a scrap dealer for 18 US dollars. Unknown to him, the bull semen he threw away was worth around 1,200 dollars.
As this greed for metal has led to shortages in some areas, and serious power cuts after vital cabling has been stolen, parliamentary deputy Zamirbek Parmankulov proposed a temporary ban on exports of ferrous and non-ferrous metals in an attempt to reduce the demand.
"Until a new law is passed, I suggested a temporary ban, but only 26 deputies supported me, five votes less than needed," Parmankulov told IWPR.
"There are people in our chamber who oppose the passing of this law. I am confronting an organized group of people who possess enormous capital. Anything could happen and I have already been threatened," he said.
There are suspicions that some senior government officials are making too much money from the metal trade to want to regulate it, as the high demand is in their favor.
Vladimir Tolokontsev, who holds a seat in parliament as an independent deputy, told IWPR, "There have been occasions when entire freight cars of metal with inadequate documentation were seized, but when law enforcement agencies start investigating, high-ranking officials appeared and the freight cars were mysteriously allowed to go on their way."
"Deputies have been trying for two years to pass legislation which would control the process of purchasing and exporting metal. It was even approved in our chamber, but it never reached the president."
Another opposition deputy Dooronbek Sadyrbaev also alleges that some high-ranking officials have a vested interest in allowing such a profitable business to flourish. "I cannot tell you specific names, but the financial interests of some very important people are involved there," Sadyrbaev told IWPR.
Tolekan Ismailova, head of the Civil Society Against Corruption association, believes that the purchase and export of metal represents a clear example of corruption.
'It is a regulated system managed by high-ranking officials who take advantage of their status to block any questions from the law enforcement agencies. Therefore, it is beneficial for the government to pretend that there is no problem," she said.
Metal is a lucrative business even at the lowest end of the scale, and an increasing number of people are becoming more and more daring in their attempts to steal it.
A spokesperson for the joint stock company Severelectro told IWPR that around 12 people a year die of electrocution while trying to steal cables to sell on to scrap metal yards.
"In 2003, criminals stole some 72 kilometers of cable worth more than 50,000 dollars," Severelectro press secretary Natalia Orlova told IWPR.
On January 15, Severelectro petitioned the government to ban the purchase and export of ferrous metals.
Analysts say that the damage done by such thefts is hard to repair since power companies are desperately short of cash reserves. As a result, many districts suffer ongoing power cuts and supply difficulties for months at a time.
The Karabalta Mining Combine is also concerned by the metal industry's lack of regulation. Its director Vladimir Mashenko told IWPR, "We have been around for 50 years, and all our unserviceable equipment is buried because of uranium contamination. Now scavengers are digging up these radioactive items to sell to metal yards."
All kinds of metals are at risk of being stolen by enterprising thieves. In the capital Bishkek, manhole covers are routinely stolen from the streets, more than 100 in 2003 alone, with the result that pedestrians are increasingly falling down the holes.
Internal affairs ministry spokesman Joldoshbek Buzurmankulov told IWPR, "In the last year 1,583 thefts of non-ferrous and ferrous metal were recorded in Kyrgyzstan. Around half were thefts of wire and cable, the rest involve pots, pans and other aluminum items being taken from members of the public."
"If one goes in the direction of the Kyrgyz-Chinese border, a never-ending procession of huge trucks loaded with scrap metal can be seen. Our metal goes to China for a meager price, but comes back in the form of various goods which we buy for 10 times more," he claimed, adding that he believed it was high time for the government to introduce strict limitations on issuing licenses for the sale and purchase of metal.
The state enterprise Temir - which for two years has been managing the licensing purchases and exports of metal - denies that it is in any way to blame for the burgeoning illegal market.
Its deputy director Nariman Tuleev went so far as to lay the blame for many incidents on employees of power companies. "Cable thefts are committed by electricians themselves, because a non-professional won't climb up the power lines for fear of electrocution," he alleged.
By Leila Saralaeva,
IWPR's Reporting Central Asia No. 264, February 11, 2004