Never known for compassion, the strongman president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, has lashed out at Uzbek migrant workers in Russia, calling them “lazy people” who “disgrace all of us” by looking for work abroad.
"I call lazy people those who go to Moscow and sweep its streets and squares. One feels disgusted with the fact that Uzbeks have to travel there for a piece of bread. Nobody is starving to death in Uzbekistan,” state-run television quoted Karimov as saying on June 20.
“The Uzbek nation's honor makes us different from others. Is not it better to die [than scrounge]? Therefore, I call lazy those people who disgrace all of us by wanting to make a lot of money faster there,” Karimov added (transcript from BBC Monitoring).
Easy for him to say. In Karimov’s breathtakingly corrupt dictatorship, major industries are allegedly controlled by a coterie of senior government officials and their families. Unemployment and underemployment are rife and Karimov has done little to foster a more transparent system that might attract investors and create jobs.
So young people – usually men – go to Russia, where they are second-class citizens at the mercy of venal officials and violent nationalists. They do not leave Uzbekistan because they want to; they have no choice. Russia’s Federal Migration Service estimates that 2.5 million of Uzbekistan’s 30 million people work in Russia. Others say the figure could be twice that.
These workers are critical to Uzbekistan’s economy. Russia’s Central Bank counted $5.7 billion in remittances sent to Uzbekistan in 2012. That’s the equivalent of 16.3 percent of Uzbekistan’s GDP (using the black-market exchange rate).
Though Karimov has long ignored the issue of labor migration, several times this year he’s indicated he wants the migrants to come home. Some believe he is trying to reduce Uzbekistan’s economic dependence on Russia. Those remittances give Moscow, with which he has frosty relations, leverage. (Indeed, the Kremlin has used migrants in the past to win a political standoff: In 2011, when Moscow and Dushanbe were arguing over the fate of two ethnic Russian pilots, a couple of planeloads of Tajik deportees was all it took to make Dushanbe cave and free the pilots.)
But until he can offer young Uzbeks an alternative, Karimov will rule over a nation of “lazy” and disgraceful people working hard to keep Moscow clean.