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Uzbeks Seek Funding for Major Road Project

The authorities in Uzbekistan are planning major improvements to a highway linking Central Asia with China. Analysts see this infrastructure project as a way of generating jobs and thus easing the economic difficulties – and possible social tensions – created by the fall-out from financial crisis.

In late March, the state-run website reported that by 2015, a road route from Kazakstan in the north through the Uzbek cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent to Kyrgyzstan and then on to China will be completely refurbished.

The 2.5 billion US dollar upgrade would transform the current road into a two-lane highway for its entire 1,400-kilometre length, adding 18 large bridges, 600 smaller ones, 300 flyovers, 180 filling stations, 12 camp sites and other items.

It is estimated that the upgraded transport corridor will increase freight movement along the route by 50 per cent.

A source close to the Uzbek government said the presidential office was drafting orders to start the work.

The Asian Development Bank has indicated that it is prepared to part-finance the project, but the government will need to seek funds from other investors.

Infrastructure projects like this one form part of the anti-crisis strategy the Uzbek government launched late last year.

Commentators say such projects will create large numbers of jobs as the country – like many others – struggles with economic problems and the risk of rising social tensions.

According to official statistics, there are about 630,000 unemployed in Uzbekistan, although independent estimates suggest the real figure is closer to 1.5 million, out of a total population of 27 million.

That aside, there are believed to be four or five million Uzbek nationals working abroad. As labour markets contract in the most popular destinations – Russia and Kazakstan – some of the migrants may be forced to return.

Others, like Inomjon, an Andijan man who has worked in construction in the Kazak capital Astana for the last two years, and before that in Moscow, might be tempted to come back if there was work to be had.

“If they start a big project in my country, I will be the first to go and work there, just to be close to my family,” he said.

Viktor Ivonin, an independent economist in Tashkent, says the roadbuilding project could provide work to large numbers of people, including in rural areas, and will have the added benefit of using locally-made machinery and materials.

Other commentators questioned how easy it will be to attract financing in an environment where money is tight and potential investors will view new projects with suspicion.

“Given the global financial crisis, international financial institutions will tend to hold back, with the sole exception of the Asian Development Bank which already pledged support,” said Dilmurod Kholmatov, an expert from Tashkent.

An economist in Uzbekistan said negotiations with potential funders were likely to be protracted, since they will demand feasibility studies. For example, it was only this March that Kazakstan secured the 2.3 billion dollars in funding needed for its Western Europe-Western China road project, after three years of negotiations.

He added, “Uzbekistan is only at the initial stage.”

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

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