Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Uzbek Brain Drain

Tashkent is paying a heavy price for alienating the country's minority communities.
By Shavkat Alimov

"I'll leave Uzbekistan by the end of the year," says Ramilya Ibatova, a Russian Uzbek. "There's nothing that can be done here. I have to leave for my daughter's sake."


Ibatova's determination to emigrate is shared by many non-Uzbeks, and even some Uzbeks.


In recent years, Tashkent's political leaders and high-profile personalities have repeatedly played on the interests of the Uzbek majority, and largely overlooked the needs of the republic's other nationalities.


Official statistics from January 2000 show that of Uzbekistan's 24 million people, 71 per cent are Uzbek, 8.3 per cent Russian, 5 per cent Tajik and 4 per cent Kazak. Tartars and Karakalpakistanis make up almost 6 per cent and numerous other minorities a further 7 per cent.


Most affected by the government's actively pro-Uzbek policies, however, are the Russian and Russian-speaking population. Once part of a national majority in the Soviet Union, the Russian population in the region has had to adjust to being a small minority in the independent republics of Central Asia.


In the first year after independence, the Uzbek government stopped broadcasting Russian television programmes and restricted the number of Russian newspapers to two. Finding a job or a decent education as a Russian speaker became increasingly difficult.


Russians in post-Soviet Uzbekistan were forced out of senior positions, especially within the state bureaucracy. Nowadays, they are virtually barred from good jobs within state ministries, the tax inspectorate, the customs service, law enforcement and the judiciary.


Only in highly technical industries and businesses do Russians continue to enjoy seniority. Flagship enterprises such as the Tashkent aviation factory and the Almalysksky and Navoi metallurgical conglomerates still employ Russians in 90 per cent of the engineering and technical jobs.


Russians have also seen their language rights undermined. Since independence, parliamentary sessions and government business had been conducted in Uzbek. But in 1995, a new law extended its official language status into most spheres of public life. Unlike Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan, Uzbekistan has no intention of recognising Russian as a state language.


Against this background, the appearance of radical Islamic groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, merely exacerbated the problems facing Russian-speaking Uzbeks.


As a result, between 1991 and 1998, around 600,000 people emigrated - around half of them Russian. Eighty per cent headed for other countries within the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Baltic republics, Israel and the United States.


The majority of the emigres belonged to the educated classes, people with professional training and reasonably high qualifications. New arrivals to Uzbekistan have been unable to fill the vacuum left by the brain-drain.


"I think it's time to get ready to leave," says Yelena, a nurse from Tashkent. "State policies are making us poorer year on year, and we're worried about the future for our kids. The number of Russian groups in education establishments is being cut. And then where will they go to work afterwards?


"I don't believe that they'll be able to make a career for themselves in Uzbekistan, because it's the Uzbeks that will get the promotions. On top of all that the Wahhabis have arrived, and so this is no place for us."


Yelena's views reflect ethnic Uzbek concerns too. Most are pessimistic about the economy's prospects for improvement. Government policy has failed to turn around serious problems, the state is increasingly restricting small business's room to manoeuvre and the lack of exchangeable currency is discouraging much needed foreign investment.


Meanwhile, the remaining non-Uzbek population is rapidly losing all hope of building a future in Uzbekistan.


Despite the thousands who have left already, taking with them vital skills and expertise, the government has issued not one word of regret. The country is losing a vital asset to other states for nought.


One look at the empty factories, the hospitals struggling to cope with too few doctors, schools and universities bereft of teachers, graphically illustrates the consequences of the government's harsh treatment of non-Uzbeks. But there is scant sign yet that the Tashkent leadership intends to reverse its stance and adopt a more inclusive approach towards its minorities.


Shavkat Alimov is a regular IWPR contributor