Under the late President Islam Karimov, the government in Uzbekistan boasted unconvincingly about its record on job creation. And that was despite the million of people forced to leave the country to find work elsewhere.
In an acknowledgement that not all is well on the labor front, Tashkent is now angling for a $100 million loan from the World Bank for a five-year program to create 500,000 new jobs.
The proposed line of credit is seen as part of the World Bank’s new Country Partnership Framework for Uzbekistan for 2016-2020, which was the focus of discussion last week during a visit to the country from the lender’s recently appointed director for Central Asia, Lilia Burunciuc.
The official unemployment rate in Uzbekistan in the first half of 2016 was 5.2 percent of the active population, or around 720,000 people. Government data in Uzbekistan is notoriously unreliable, but the figure may indeed be relatively contained due to migration. Around three to four million Uzbeks currently live and work abroad, mainly in Russia, because of a lack of jobs inside the country. Karimov’s unemployment-busting strategies typically focused on reliance on internal resources, and they have returned disappointing results.
Still, the would-be jobs to be created with the hoped-for World Bank support are not yet defined and the $100 million sum looks far too small to realistically generate that level of economic activity.
An official delegation headed by Kyrgyzstan’s deputy prime minister visited Uzbekistan’s Andijan region on October 1 for a visit that observers of the region hope could break a pattern of frosty relations.
News website Gazeta.uz reported that Muhammetkaly Abulgaziev led a delegation of around 130 government officials, “cultural representatives” and youth groups. State officials included representatives from the regions bordering Uzbekistan — Osh, Batken and Jalal-Abad — and the mayor of Osh city, Aitmamat Kadyrbayev.
The large group of guests was ceremonially greeted by deputy Uzbek prime minister Adham Ikramov at the Dustlik (“Friendship”) border crossing in Uzbekistan’s Khodjaobad district, which sits adjacent to Osh and has lain unused for many years.
During the one-day tour, the visiting delegation was taken to see a museum devoted to celebrated medieval poet and son of Andijan, Zahiriddin Muhammad Babur, a local university, the premises of a freshly built train station and the General Motors Uzbekistan manufacturing plant.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, reported that the trip concluded with the obligatory sealing of a memorandum of mutual cooperation that was signed by neighboring regions of both countries. A concert then followed.
Uzbek youth movement Kamolot uploaded video footage of an address by the visiting Kyrgyz onto its website entitled “Hello Uzbekistan!” In the video, one woman in her sixties, spoke in Kyrgyz to say that this was the first ever such high-ranking delegation to visit Andijan region.
Uzbekistan’s acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev has been busily touring the regions and vowing to improve people’s lives as he tries to bolster his legitimacy ahead of December 4 elections.
In concrete terms, Mirziyoyev is pledging to build homes, improve provision of household electricity and gas, and create a more efficient transportation system. Although his victory in the December 4 presidential election is not in any doubt, Mirziyoyev is energetically trying to raise his public profile and have it associated with major, life-enhancing infrastructure.
On October 1, while he was in the Syrdarya region, around 100 kilometers outside Tashkent, the acting leader visited a power station that serves as the largest provider of electricity for central Uzbekistan.
He then traveled to the regional capital, Gulistan, and dropped in on the building site of a multistory residential complex intended for hard-off families. A state television report showed Mirziyoyev stressing that the apartments were being provided to buyers on preferential loan terms and that they should be distributed fairly to those in need.
All the way in the far western edge of Uzbekistan, in the officially autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, Mirziyoyev demanded that works be speeded up to modernize the Takhiatash thermal power station.
“Without completion of this project, the development of industry in Karakalpakstan and Khorezm will not be possible — it is necessary to speed us this project, which is important for the region,” he said.
When Uzbekistan’s acting president Shavkat Mirziyoyev addressed a joint session of parliament earlier this month, he made a point of saying that his foreign policy priority was to boost relations with regional neighbors.
"We always remain committed to adopting an open, friendly and pragmatic position toward our immediate neighbors — Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan," Mirziyoyev said.
Since even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaders in Central Asia have been paying lip service to the notion of fostering fraternal ties in the region, but Mirziyoyev has tentatively lived up to his word in small if meaningful ways so far.
In an apparent start at trying to mend fences, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov on September 29 visited Tajikistan, where he met with President Emomali Rahmon.
Discussions were confined to what might sound like meaningless generalities anywhere else. For these two countries, however, talk of positive trends in relations, increased trade, revitalized dialogue on trade and economic cooperation and “the importance of maintaining regular political consultations and dialogue at the highest levels” are more than noteworthy.
Rahmon and Karimov’s relationship was fraught by personal enmity, making reaching state-level agreement on a number of thorny sticking points — of which there are many — all the more difficult.
The biggest source of bilateral unease lies in Dushanbe’s determination to build the giant Roghun hydropower plant, which Tashkent has loudly complained will pose a potentially existential risk to its agricultural sector by stemming the flow of a major river.
There is no area of public life in Uzbekistan that can remain untouched by cotton.
With the end of September approaching, the harvesting season is in full swing and all available hands are being enlisted to the cause: teachers, students, doctors, scientists and conscripts.
And on Friday, imams all across the country used prayer day sermons to urge parishioners to go out into the fields as well. The imam at a mosque in the Kashakadarya region, Bobohon Abdurahimov, said the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan distributed specific instructions on appeals to get the faithful to participate in the gathering of raw cotton.
“We explain to the faithful … that the gathering of cotton is a major state-level concern. Cotton is our national pride, that is why need an all-nation khashar (voluntary collective works drive) — a joint effort for the good of society. Muslims will please God if they help the state and farmers,” Abdurahimov told EurasiaNet.org.
At the largest mosques in Tashkent, worshippers can contribute to the harvest by providing donations, which are then used to provide for some of the cotton-pickers’ needs.
Asked if the sermons have any impact, Abdurahimov said that different people respond in different ways. Some limit themselves to making financial donations to help the cause, while others send one of their relatives to the fields. And then there are some very passive Muslims who take no heed whatsoever, he said.
According to Uzbekistan’s constitution, religious institutions are separate from the state, but in reality, the activities of faith organizations are strictly monitored and directed by security organs.
In a departure from the distant leadership style of the late Islam Karimov, the interim president of Uzbekistan has instituted an online suggestions and complaint box.
For now the website, pm.gov.uz, is still in test regime and under the PM domain, not least since Shavkat Mirziyoyev still occupies the post of head of government ahead of the December 4 presidential elections.
The website is available in Uzbek and Russian.
“Do you have unsolved problems, applications, complaints or suggestions? Send them to the prime minister of the Republic of Uzbekistan,” the website burbles enthusiastically.
Private citizens or legally registered companies can address Mirziyoyev through the provided online form, which requires a raft of identifying data, or they can call directly at the toll-free number 1000.
The direct line connects callers to regional advisers for Mirziyoyev’s Liberal-Democratic Party of Uzbekistan (UzLiDeP), which advanced his nomination for the presidency.
The appearance of the website and hotline were advertised on the evening news on state television on September 24.
News website Gazeta.uz notes that responsibility for considering all public appeals through these forms of communications are being placed on the heads of ministries, government departments and local authorities.
The initiative seems to have been greeted with guarded optimism.
Uzbekistan has introduced a law protecting personal data that will make it illegal to disseminate information about people’s private life without prior express permission.
The legislation, approved by acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on September 23, will make disclosing personal information punishable by severe fines or prison terms.
Offenders may be cleared if they admit their guilt and reach a settlement with the injured party, news website gazeta.rureported.
On the face of it, the development appears to be a positive one and has been welcomed by members of the public.
“These badly needed legal changes will protect citizens from law enforcement organs that gather personal data about people and use it against them,” Irina Tomshevich, an accountant in a private company, told EurasiaNet.org.
But according to Alexei Volosevich, the legal amendments are in violation of laws regulating the functions of the media.
“According to Article 29 of the constitution of Uzbekistan ‘every person has the right to seek, receive and distribute any information, so long as it does not serve to undermine the constitutional order,’” Volosevich said. “That is to say, even though the constitution declares the right of citizens to the free access to information, there are loopholes in the form of ‘other restrictions provided for by law.’”
A commentary published on Central Asia-focused website AsiaTerra pursued the line even more aggressively.
In the wake of a fresh boundary dispute, Uzbekistan has re-opened a border crossing with Kyrgyzstan and started allowing the passage of private citizens.
Uzbek news site Anhor.uz reported that the crossing began to operate normally on September 19 following telephone negotiations between the presidents of the two countries.
On the face of it, the move marks another surprising thaw over border issues, which had been strained intensely after a helicopter of Uzbek policeman last month occupied a Kyrgyz telecommunications tower on a disputed mountain and detained four technicians working there. The men have since been released and the telecommunications tower was abandoned by the Uzbek police officers over the weekend.
But Kyrgyz residents living near the crossing in question have told EurasiaNet.org that private citizens have not been able to get into Uzbekistan through that point for many years now, so claims the situation will revert to that before an earlier border dispute in March are highly confusing. The only relatively operational land crossing between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan is in the latter’s Kadamjay district — a fact that all but cripples trade and communication between the two countries.
Despite the uncertainty, even the news of potential new border crossings is heartening Uzbek exporters, like Tahir in Tashkent.
Tahir exports cherries to China’s Xinjiang province and is eager to see the border working efficiently.
Three people in Uzbekistan’s Sirdarya region have been sentenced to 12 years in jail for committing fraud in the cotton business, according to a report by Russian state news agency Sputnik later relayed by local media.
Other people connected to the crime received less severe penalties, the agency reported.
Corruption in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, whose profitability is known to be underpinned by a vast amount of rights abuses, is something that is widely suspected but little investigated or reported. Emergence of this relatively small case of malfeasance has shed some light on the irregularities that prevail in the industry.
“Sirdarya regional court ruled that the criminal group caused major financial damage to the government and embezzled more than 7 billion sum ($1.1 million) from the region’s cotton sector,” Sputnik reported, citing an unnamed courts official.
Sirdarya region neighbors the Tashkent region to the southwest and is around one hour’s drive from the capital.
Investigations into the fraudulent scheme concerned activities between July 2011 to May 2013 at a factory that collected and paid for deliveries of raw cotton from farmers.
“The criminals not only appropriated money provided by the government for the purchase of cotton, but they also in fact engaged in theft of this valuable commodity, selling it on the side,” Sputnik cited its source as saying.
While Sputnik did not dwell on the particulars of the embezzlement scheme, some insight was provided by an Uzbek journalist who has written extensively on the cotton industry for local outlets.
Police in Uzbekistan are reportedly on the hunt for people that they say spread unfounded rumors about the recent death of President Islam Karimov.
Russian news agency RIA Novosti cited Interior Ministry sources on September 9 as saying that they are looking for anybody that spread the gossip through social media, phone messaging apps and internet telephony services.
The witch-hunt is confounding even by Uzbekistan’s standards since most people, including the government in Tashkent, now agree that Karimov is indeed no longer alive. But the issue appears specifically to be all about the date on which the late president passed.
RIA Novosti’s source is cited as saying that the police are looking for “those social media users that spread the untrue information about Karimov’s date of death and that spread panic about a possible worsening of the country’s socio-political situation.”
RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, Ozodlik, said 12 people had been detained in the Namangan region for sharing news about Karimov’s presumed death through the Telegram and WhatsApp messaging services.
Ozodlik reported that middle school pupils and students at colleges in Tashkent and in the regions are now being forced to delete messaging apps from their phones for fear of more rumor-sharing.
What is particularly perverse about this frenzy of policing is that all evidence points to the fact that Karimov was indeed to all intents and purposes more dead than alive for days before his passing was announced, on September 2. As commentators have noted, the government did more to threaten stability by refusing to provide reassuring clarity about the situation than any social media user could have done.