BISHKEK -- When Russian energy giant Gazprom promised to build a tuition-free, state-of-the-art middle school in Bishkek, local residents were ecstatic.
Now they are up in arms, as the company is charging fees that only the wealthiest of families can afford in a move residents are calling "fraud against society".
The school history dates back to 2013, when Gazprom purchased a 100% stake in Kyrgyzgaz, Kyrgyzstan's largest natural gas supplier.
The parties agreed that under the terms of the purchase, which was made for the token price of $1, Gazprom would spend five years modernising and rebuilding Kyrgyzstan's gas infrastructure. In addition, the Russian gas giant took on civic obligations like building sports facilities and schools in Kyrgyzstan.
Gazprom built the middle school in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital. The school would have 33 modern classrooms, computer rooms, a multimedia library, laboratory and auditorium, a 350-seat cafeteria, two gymnasiums and two indoor swimming pools as well as outdoor sports fields, announced Alexei Miller, chairman of Gazprom.
"The school is an exemplar of world-class practices, and its construction will give serious momentum to the well-rounded development of Kyrgyzstan's younger generation," Miller said in August 2017 when he and then-President Almazbek Atambayev laid a capsule under the foundation of the future building.
Bishkek's city hall also contributed to the "project of the century". It allocated a 3.5-hectare plot of land for the school and built an asphalt road leading to it.
The amount coming out of the municipal budget has not been disclosed.
A school for the rich
However, news emerged that the school would not be free after construction ended early this summer.
The tuition proposed by Gazprom is 22,000 KGS ($315) per month, 24.kg reported in June, citing a Facebook user named Bakuliya Jalilova.
Local residents who were waiting for the school's completion were taken aback. In Kyrgyzstan, the average monthly salary in 2018 was $235 (16,415 KGS), according to official statistics.
"I'm shocked. Now where am I going to send my son, who's starting first grade in September?" asked Tilek Surabaldiyev, a resident of Asanbai, the Bishkek neighbourhood where the school is situated.
Saikal Abdyrazayeva, who also lives near the school, said that the tuition would force her to continue taking her child to another school downtown on the bus.
Local residents were excited in 2017 when Atambayev and Miller inaugurated construction of the school, she recalled.
"But it turns out that they built the school for the rich. We don't have that kind of money or opportunity to get into such a luxurious school," Abdyrazayeva said.
"Why did they build that huge school with an observatory that my child can't enter? He won't be able to study in those classrooms, swim in the pool or play on the soccer field," she added.
When she put these questions to Azamat Dikambayev, principal of the Gazprom school, he evaded them, she said.
The city does not have the resources to run the school, which would require about 150 to 200 million KGS ($2.1 to $2.9 million) per year, Bishkek mayor Aziz Surakmatov has said.
Gazprom intended from the start to run the school for profit, said Anara Dautaliyeva, a Bishkek human rights activist and director of the NGO Taza Tabigat (Pure Nature).
Gazprom's decision to charge tuition amounts to "fraud against society", she said in an interview. "Ordinary people, for whom public amenities such as schools should be built, were deceived by Gazprom and deprived of the fundamental opportunity to attend school."
Gazprom, with its deed, has separated Kyrgyz children into rich and poor, she added.
She is certain that Gazprom decided to take advantage of the Kyrgyz government's reluctance to stand up to it.
"Such a wealthy company should have thought about the children, not about its own profits," she said.
A similar story played out in Armenia. In Yerevan, where Gazprom began building a school and athletic facility in 2016, it promised local residents that their children would be able to attend the school for free. Construction was scheduled to end in 2018.
However, during construction of the building, reports emerged that tuition for the new school would cost about 1 million AMD per year ($2,100). Last September, Yerevan's indignant residents wrote an open letter to Gazprom chief Miller, asking for clarification on the substance of Gazprom's "social programmes".
The Bishkek school should have been public, not a Gazprom operation, said Dautaliyeva.
"We shouldn't forget about children's needs and rights. The issue isn't with the infrastructure but with education itself, to which every citizen has the right, according to the Kyrgyz constitution," she said. "It appears that Gazprom is removed from such principles."
This is not the first time that the Russian gas conglomerate has caused hard feelings in Central Asia. Earlier this year, for example, Gazprom forced struggling Turkmenistan to accept a humiliatingly low price for exports of Turkmen natural gas. In 2018, Gazprom also dashed Tajikistan's hopes of energy wealth when it stopped drilling for oil and gas in that country.