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Uzbek Teachers Angry at Benefits Cut

Tashkent authorities keeping quiet about controversial plans to slash assistance to teachers.
By Olga Borisova

The authorities in Tashkent, grappling with a growing budget deficit, appear to be trying to conceal plans to scrap benefits for teachers, which have long enjoyed a privileged status in Uzbek society.


Members of the profession are furious about the anticipated cuts and the government's refusal to come clean over them.


The government's reticence is believed to stem from a fear of provoking civil unrest.


Uzbek teachers have had free rides on public transport and reduced rates for state utilities for more than 10 years, part of a system of social support promoted by the government of President Islam Karimov that gives benefits to over 2.2 million families in Uzbekistan.


But plunging hard currency earnings from cotton exports have forced the government to look for savings, and, expecting little trouble from teachers, the authorities have focussed on their benefits to make up the shortfall.


The cuts, though, have not been formally announced, with teachers only finding out about the plans indirectly.


Marina Nikonova, a teacher from the city of Nukus, said when she went to the main post office to pay her public utility bills, staff there refused to deal with her until, they said, they received "instructions as to how much teachers now have to pay for these rates".


In her school, as in many others, teachers held meetings with education ministry officials to ask them what was going on, but received no straight answers.


The education ministry was unable to clarify the situation.


"It's not worth making the situation worse with various rumours, especially as there are no documents to confirm them," said Shukhrat Gulyamov, who works in the ministry's finance department.


Education ministry press secretary Jakhongir Musaev admitted that teachers were concerned, and said he knew of cases where they had been refused free tickets on public transport or sent away when trying to claim their 50 per cent discount on their utility rates.


The finance ministry was more forthcoming, telling IWPR that teachers' benefits would end after March. "Instead of privileges, teachers will have their salary increased," a spokesman at the ministry's press service said, adding that the rise would be of the order of around 10 per cent.


But no one could say when, or even whether, an announcement would be made.


Last year, the authorities closed down billiards clubs across Uzbekistan following a decision by the cabinet. But police were issued with no documents to confirm their orders and for some time it was unclear where the instructions had come from.


The benefit cuts - which are also likely to affect the army - appear to be in response to the country's mounting debts.


From January to August last year, the state budget deficit was 30 million US dollars. This year, according to some analysts, it will increase even more after a noticeable drop in trade due to the closure of markets resulting from swingeing import duties and growing inflation, which ran at 18 per cent last year.


The withdrawal of benefits will come as a double to teachers who, like the rest of the population, have been struggling to cope with rocketing prices for food and clothes as a consequence of the import taxes.


In Uzbekistan, the authorities have in the past shown particular concern for teachers, affording them many privileges and giving their work prestigious status.


They have national holiday in their honour. In 1990, those who worked in cities were given a 50 per cent discount on public utility rates, while their counterparts in rural areas did not have to pay anything at all. Later on, they were granted the right to ride in public transport for free.


With teachers earning less than 25 dollars a month, these benefits were of considerable value to their families, and a real incentive to keep people in the profession.


Teachers themselves do not consider a 10 per cent salary increase will compensate for the loss of state assistance.


Marina Nikonova, who lives with her pensioner mother and small daughter, says she's despairing about the loss of her benefits - which had allowed her family to make ends meet - but is even more distressed about the government's refusal to come clean about them.


"Most of all I'm outraged that we aren't given precise information. I'm certain that the increase in salary won't compensate the privileges that I'll lose, because if this really were the case, the authorities wouldn't be afraid to announce it officially," she said.


Olga Borisova is an independent journalist in Tashkent


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