A narrowly averted industrial action at the capital's power plant has revealed the weaknesses of the Kyrgyz energy sector.
The mostly Russian workers of the Bishkek heating and power plant called off their threatened strike recently, leaving the Kyrgyz authorities breathing a sigh of relief at having avoided an awkward labour action during Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Kyrgyzstan.
But the authorities' reprieve could be short-lived, as the incident has exposed the long-term problems facing them.
Staff at the plant - once the most prestigious in the country and known for its high wages and benefits - have not received a full salary for many months now, and had threatened industrial action if money was not forthcoming.
However, a swift payment of wage arrears averted a walkout that would have left Bishkek residents without power in the bitterly cold Kyrgyz winter, not to mention embarrassing the government during the Russian president's visit to the capital on December 5. The Bishkek city administration allocated eight million soms, around 174,000 US dollars, to pay a percentage of the delayed wages, and the strike was put on hold.
Still, analysts believe that industrial action cannot be ruled out if a similar salary stoppage were to occur again, and, more importantly, the near miss has highlighted the extent of the financial difficulties the plant is in and the collapse of energy infrastructure more generally.
The state-run plant is the main source of heating and hot water for residential homes and public buildings. However, the plant's debts are piling up.
Plant director Lev Vasiliev told IWPR that the salary payment problems occurred when the company incurred debts of up to 457,000 US dollars due to customers' inability to pay on time, or at all.
Their inability to pay has been exacerbated by the republic's current economic crisis, which has pushed many firms to the brink of bankruptcy and slashed salaries and pensions to a miniscule level.
The situation at the power plant reached a critical point when ten workers were forced to take their children out of school as they were no longer able to afford to buy uniforms or exercise books for them.
Even those lucky enough to have been paid a fraction of their salaries find it increasingly difficult to cope.
"I have been working here 33 years, and I am now receiving only around a fifth of my salary," said one maintenance department worker, who gave his name only as Volodya. "The management already owes me 29,000 soms (630 US dollars)."
Another worker, Viktor Vybrantsev, told IWPR, "I had to borrow money to pay for my son's university fees. Recently, I received one portion of my monthly salary, but after I paid off my debts, I was again left with nothing."
A 13,000-dollar debt to the plant's food supplier has left the management unable to provide even meals for its workers. As the nature of the job is intensive and sometimes dangerous, leading trade unions have voiced fears for employees' safety.
"Our members come to work half starved, and many of them faint because of this," said trade union committee head Anatoly Pichugin. "In this state they are more prone to industrial injuries and may cause a serious accident."
A lack of funds is also causing problems for the plant's worn-out machinery, which was not overhauled this year - for the first time in 40 years. Pichugin claims that the plant continues to work mainly because of the enthusiasm of its workers.
"We have many excellent, qualified people who are able to conduct minor repairs. However, the old equipment may not take the load and may break down," he warned.
All this prompts workers to look for jobs elsewhere. Over the last year alone, 250 workers - almost half of whom were highly qualified specialists - left for Russia.
This withdrawal may have serious consequences for the future of the plant, as there are no Kyrgyz energy specialists in the capital.
Ularbek Matyev, director of the State Agency for Energy, explained that such experts are no longer taught at Kyrgyz institutes. "As the prestige of the engineering profession has declined drastically, everyone is studying to be lawyers and translators," he told IWPR.
"Old workers are retiring, and many leave the republic or change their profession due to the low wages that may be delayed by many months," he added.
Numerous laws have been passed to support the country's fuel and energy complex, but plant workers claim these decrees only look good on paper and don't work in practice. Some fear the government may pay a very high price if the plant were to shut down.
"If the Bishkek power plant were to stop providing electricity and heating to its those who owe it money, or if it simply stops working due to equipment malfunctions, this could spark a riot among the population," warned human rights activist Yrysbek Omurzakov.
By Elena Vetlugina and Asel Sagynbaeva, IWPR's Reporting Central Asia, No. 167, December 6, 2002