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Uzbekistan In Denial Over Poverty

The Tashkent authorities appear to be refusing to acknowledge the true scale of Uzbek poverty
By Arslan Kasymov

Uzbek ministers recently announced there had been an overall improvement in the standard of living - an odd assessment to make given that half the population is living below the poverty line, according to sources in the state statistics office.


The average Uzbek citizen earns 9 US dollars a month - roughly a third of the amount required to cover the basic living expenses of one family member.


"I don't have savings - everything I earn is immediately spent on everyday needs, particularly food," said one Tashkent resident.


Since Uzbeks tend to have four or five children, and women find it difficult or even impossible to go out to work, many families would face severe hunger if it wasn't for their allotment.


The government has repeatedly failed to back up its optimistic forecasts on living standards with actual figures. And it is also keen that the media refrain from looking too deeply into the issue - banning all talk of poverty indices.


A UN human development report on Uzbekistan for 2000 came up with a GNP figure of 2829, which put the country in the same class as Albania, Armenia and Egypt.


But even this paints too bright a picture. It was calculated according to the official exchange rate which hovers at around three times the actual market rate. Real GNP is probably no more than 1000 USD.


"Many foreign institutions, the World Bank being one of them, tried to study the problem of poverty in Uzbekistan," said independent expert Dalshod Atkhamov "but they did not manage to grasp the full picture."


She points to the fact that local officials tamper with household surveys - and that reports often don't cover the entire country.


Some of the poorest Uzbek citizens are the elderly. They used to get pensions of around 16 dollars but the government reduced htis by half on the grounds that pensioners were earning money "on the side".


One Tashkent pensioner, Anatoly Kazakov, took this up with the local social security office but found himself being passed from one department to another. "Wherever I went," he said, "I was told that this was a presidential decree and nobody was going to revoke it."


To add insult to injury, the government also decided that pensioners no longer deserve a 50 per cent discount on their utilities bills. Which left them with just one perk - subsidised transport passes.


Consumer goods remain beyond the reach of most elderly people. "My old television set, which I bought in the 70s still works and I don't even dream of a new one," said Ida Borisova.


Levels of impoverishment are worsened by long delays in salaries. Unions say its quite common for worker to wait three to four months to be paid


Imanula Ibadullaev from the Surkhandarya region complained, " We haven't bought any clothes for five years, as we are paid so seldom by the collective farm."


Some employers have tried to get around the problem by paying workers in kind, but this method has its own pitfalls.


A collective farmer from the Khorezm region was given a few kilos of edible oil in lieu of her wage packet. She took her produce to the market, where police arrested her for tax avoidance.


The officers said she should have bought a trading licence, registered as a private business and paid the relevant taxes.


"This is not a one-off," said an official at the Chilanzar tax police office." These things happen all the time."


People scrape a living picking up bits of work here and there, bartering goods, selling trinkets at the market. For some families, drug-dealing and prostitution are the only means of getting by.


Somehow, the population still manages to survive, which baffles many economists and sociologists. Although the government has set in motion economic reforms aimed at the poorest Uzbeks, the current situation demands swift and immediate attention.


Arslan Kasymov is a regular IWPR contributor


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