Amid a worsening financial picture in Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov is pulling out his old Soviet playbook and trying to give new meaning to the concept of a command economy. But there appears to be a sizeable chance that the Uzbek government's policy prescriptions could end up exacerbating social tension in the Central Asian nation.
Uzbekistan, like other Central Asian states, has relied in recent years on remittances sent home by migrant laborers to help prop up the local economy. But over the past year, the most lucrative markets for migrant labor, Russia and Kazakhstan, have been hammered by the global economic crisis, and, as a result, seasonal work in construction and other sectors has evaporated. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In Uzbekistan's case, not only has the level of remittances taken a drastic dip, but the return of migrant laborers to their homeland has placed additional strain on the country's social infrastructure. Internal migration, in which the rural poor have sought out work in cities, also has emerged as a potential source of destabilization. In response, the government has embarked on an ambitious job-creation program that some observers criticize as ill-conceived and, ultimately, counter-productive.
Saibdzhan Aliyev, the deputy head of the labor market analysis unit at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, predicted that 932,500 jobs will be created in 2009, more than 550,000 of them in rural areas, Russia's Regnum news agency reported May 15.
More than 208,600 new jobs were created during the first quarter of 2009, some 148,200 of them in rural areas, he claimed. Hundreds of job fairs are being held across the country to promote employment with a focus on hiring graduates, disabled citizens and villagers, Aliyev added.
Beyond questioning the accuracy of government employment figures and targets, critics characterize the government initiative as little more than a massive "make-work" scheme that does little to promote a sustainable economic recovery. Tashkent observers say many of the "newly employed" in the capital find themselves sweeping roads, tidying parks or pushing paper in the offices of local administrations.
The primary focus of government employment efforts is in the countryside. And it is there that the government's approach is the most heavy-handed, some observers say. They add that officials are forcing farmers into hiring laborers who aren't needed, and whose salaries will take a huge chunk out of any profit that proprietors of the land could hope to make. As a result, this agricultural season could witness a spike in rural discontent, the observers say. Already, according to some, dissatisfaction is running high.
"Farmers try to hire as few people as they can; they limit their labor force to their family. They don't have the money to pay for other workers. Plus, the government still tells farmers what to sow, the quantity of crops or cotton, and when to do it. Then, the government buys it from the farmers at a very cheap price. What's more, farmers still haven't gotten their money from the last harvest," said Dmitry Alyaev, the editor of the Oasis Internet magazine and an observer of Uzbek affairs who is based in Russia.
The only people likely to be satisfied by the new employment policies are hakims -- the heads of local government, a source in Tashkent who is familiar with the government's employment strategy told EurasiaNet. "The main reason why officials are doing it is to prepare work places for the mass return of labor migrants from other countries to Uzbekistan. [But] creating jobs through forcing farmers to hire workers is not a good idea and everyone knows it," the source said.
"Hakims and local officials understand that farmers don't have the money to pay the workers' salaries. . . . This measure was basically created for hakims and local officials to report that they are doing something to prevent mass unemployment in Uzbekistan," the source continued. "The problem of unemployment cannot be solved this way, not a chance."
Local officials have reportedly threatened to confiscate the land of farmers who do not go along with the government's forced-employment regimen. Experts both in and outside of Uzbekistan suggest that enforcing a confiscation edict might be impossible. Yet, even if the threat to confiscate land is an idle one, the government has other means of making life intolerable for farmers, Dmitry Alyaev warned.
"Uzbekistan has neither the potential, nor the financial base [to create 1 million new jobs]. So as ever, social problems are left on the farmers' shoulders. Tashkent approves of this. But farmers will not talk about it because they don't need problems later with taxation and other things," Alyaev said.
The government's employment drive has a better chance of stoking social tension than it does of solving it, he added. "Farmers, who are supposed to hire returned migrants, will go bankrupt and become labor migrants themselves," he predicted.