Uzbek Leader Wakes Up to Mass Emigration
After years of ignoring the fact that large numbers of people are forced to leave Uzbekistan in search of work, President Islam Karimov has described it as “a shame on the nation” that they cannot find jobs at home.
Karimov’s unusually candid remarks came during a January 18 cabinet meeting at he presented the usual rosy review of Uzbekistan’s economic performance over the last year – eight per cent economic growth and low inflation. These figures are disputed by other economists – see IMF Predicts High Inflation for Uzbekistan.)
Karimov appeared upset by the recent murder of an Uzbek migrant worker employed as a janitor in Moscow. Russia’s NTV channel reported the case on January 13.
"Why did he go there?” Karimov asked, visibly angry. “Couldn’t this man have made as much money in Uzbekistan as he did in Moscow? Shame on the nation if our people can work only as janitors.”
Like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan has experienced an exodus of workers, mainly heading for Russia, in recent years. Some stay only for seasonal work, while others settled down semi-permanently.
The Najot human rights group estimates that between three to five million out of a total population of 28 million are working abroad.
Unlike its two neighbours, though, Uzbekistan has dealt with the issue by simply ignoring it. And unlike them, it never responds when its nationals – often exploited and in menial jobs – fall victim to violence.
On this occasion, Karimov did respond, although it was unclear why he went on to blame Uzbekistan’s interior ministry, which is concerned with domestic policing only, for the man’s death.
In similar vein, he held the prosecution service responsible for high youth unemployment, without explaining how this could be the case.
Unemployment is another taboo subject. As of last August, the government’s statistical agency said the unemployment rate had fallen to under 4.8 per cent of the able-bodied population. The World Bank, meanwhile, puts the figure at between 20 and 30 per cent, varying across the country.
A member of parliament from the Liberal Democrats – one of a handful of officially-sanctioned political groups – described Karimov’s criticisms as fair and well-aimed, and suggested that officials might now be held accountable.
"The president has evidently begun receiving information that many people leave to find work, and that young people are our of work,” the parliamentarian said. “So he’s decided to put a stop to it, and also to let people know that he’s aware of everything and that he’s on their side. "
Bahodir Safoev, an analyst in Tashkent, said the president seemed to be contradicting himself.
"First he talks about unprecedented economic growth, rising exports and imports, and an improved investment climate. Then he complains about the existence of migrant workers and massive unemployment,” Safoev said. “How can these problems exist if the economic figures are so high?”
Economist Bahram Abdulloev said the reality was that much of the economy was being fed by the money the migrants sent home to their families, so it was unlikely the government would take action to stop the exodus even if it could.
"The total remittances sent by labour migrants are worth from 25 to 35 per cent of gross domestic product,” he said. “Having an army of ‘gastarbeiters’ abroad benefits the authorities. Theys bring in real money while reducing the welfare burden, since they’re outside the system aren’t eligible to claim for unemployment benefits and pensions. "
This article was produced as part of News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.
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