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Uzbekistan: Privatization In Publishing Means Books Are Often Out Of Reach

  • Charles Carlson

Uzbeks have traditionally placed great importance on acquiring a household library in order to improve their children's education. But the partial privatization of the publishing sector since independence has increased the price of books to the point where not all parents can afford them. RFE/RL compares the publishing situation in Uzbekistan with neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

Prague, 23 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The economic repercussions of the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991 negatively affected the social spheres in many Soviet successor states. Free medical care and education, which generations of Soviet citizens took for granted, no longer existed.

Cutbacks in funding to the education sector have induced some states, including Kyrgyzstan, to introduce a charge for education. Although small -- 160 soms, or a little more than $3, in towns, even less in rural areas -- this sum is beyond the reach of many in a country where the average monthly salary is only $25. Thousands of children in rural areas do not attend school at all because their parents cannot afford to buy them shoes.

At the same time, the publishing sector has been largely privatized in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, which means the publication of school textbooks has become a commercial undertaking instead of being wholly subsidized by the state.

Alisher Ikramov is secretary-general of the National Commission of Uzbekistan for UNESCO, the UN's education and cultural organization. He wrote in a recent article that the Uzbek book sector receives subsidies from the government, while the Republican Education Center reviews and controls the quality of materials used in classrooms.

A committee known as the State Printing Committee regularly compiles national bibliographies and other statistical data regarding the publishing industry. A national book policy covers publication and distribution. Publishing houses are controlled by the state through compulsory licensing and legislation drawn up by the ministries concerned.

With regard to textbook publication, the government provides policies for the provision of educational materials and materials for vocational education. Most of the government activities in the book sector focus on textbook development.

Ikramov says quality, content, and presentation are areas needing attention. Textbooks sometimes fall apart due to the poor quality of binding. Occasionally, the subject matter of children's textbooks is difficult for children to understand since they are written by authors who are used to writing for adults.

Ikramov noted that since imported paper is so expensive, many people cannot afford to buy books, and private-sector publishers have not provided enough investment in book publishing. But the government does provide some investment, including free distribution of textbooks, but only for the first grade of elementary schools.

In September 2001, educational institutions introduced book-rental schemes. Parents pay for the rental scheme and the government subsidizes them to reduce costs to make them affordable, writes Ikramov.

To meet the demands of the major ethnic groups in Uzbekistan, all textbooks are now being published in several languages: Uzbek, Karakalpak, Russian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Turkmen.

Since the 1996 program to change the alphabet to Latin, textbooks, especially textbooks for children, have begun being published in Latin script. But Uzbekistan is now experiencing a shortage of learning materials using Latin script. Ikramov argues that library facilities must be expanded and improved in order to make such books more widely available.

The situation is better in schools where Russian is the language of instruction. In July, the Russian Education Ministry presented the Uzbek government with a total of 400,000 copies of 80 separate textbooks for use in Uzbekistan's 140 Russian-language schools.

Although she did not know exactly the number of books published annually, Gulchekhra Mukhamedjanova, editor in chief of "Kitob Dunyosi" (The World of Books), the Uzbek monthly review of new book titles, was able to give some information on the number of books they review in the journal each month.

In each edition of the journal, she said, "there are 40 to 50 books that we review. There are school books, books for children, detective novels, [books] of a scientific nature -- in general, 40 or 50 that we review every month."

In Kyrgyzstan, the situation with regard to school textbooks is even worse than in Uzbekistan. There are some 1.2 million schoolchildren in Kyrgyzstan, but the 25 new textbooks published this year appeared in print runs of only between 8,000 and 30,000. As a result, in some classes 10 students have to share one textbook.

In August, the Kyrgyz Education and Culture Ministry reported that only 64 percent of textbook orders for schools had been fulfilled. However, one of the oldest specialists on printing, writer Melis Abakirov, has questioned that figure. He told RFE/RL that the ministry included data not only for textbooks but also for other books and brochures used by students and teachers. At the same time, Abakirov admitted that the government should do more to ensure that enough textbooks are published, and should ensure that their price is not exorbitant.

"Provision for textbooks needs a state-level, national policy. What does such a policy consist of? For this there must be state protectionism. Protectionism means favorable credits and donations. Value-added taxes must be omitted from the printing of textbooks and literature for children," Abakirov said.

As in Uzbekistan, in Kyrgyzstan too the availability of textbooks is better in Russian-language schools, which receive textbooks free of charge from the Education Ministry in Moscow.