Harsh criticism by Uzbek President Islam Karimov of the country’s migrant workers and street beggars has raised eyebrows in a country where the economy is heavily dependent on remittances sent by migrant workers in Russia.
During a June 20 visit to Uzbekistan's Jizzakh and Sirdaryo regions, where he met with local farmers and officials and praised Uzbekistan’s economic progress, he lashed out at Uzbek migrant workers, calling them "lazy." Then, a few seconds later, he took a swipe at the country's beggars, denying their existence.
In this clip broadcast on state television, local officials can be seen solemnly listening and taking notes as Karimov speaks:
WATCH: Karimov speaks about migrants, beggars (in Uzbek)
"There are very few lazy people in Uzbekistan now," Karimov says. "I describe as lazy those who go to Moscow and sweep its streets and squares. One feels disgusted with Uzbeks going there for a slice of bread."
The Uzbek president did not stop there. He begins reminiscing about the time when he worked in Tashkent on weekends and would go to the Eski Juva neighborhood to feed the beggars.
"One day, I went there to conduct an inspection. You will not be able to find any beggar there today even if you search for one," Karimov says.
Karimov concludes that there are no beggars nowadays because "people's dignity does not allow them to do that."
However, prior to any official visit by the president, it is common practice for local authorities to do a thorough cleanup of the area.
On June 24, just a few days after Karimov's comments were aired, an RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondent witnessed police clearing beggars from a market in Tashkent.
Officials clear beggars on the streets of Tashkent on June 24.
Karimov’s speech has also inspired some Uzbeks to refute the president’s comments by posting photos
of beggars on Facebook and Twitter.
Others have poked fun at Karimov’s harsh statements with jokes addressing both migrants and beggars.
"Karimov is right," one joke goes. "We don’t have beggars anymore because nobody is giving them money and they went to Russia."
Uzbekistan's economy is, in part, dependent on migrant-labor remittances from Russia.
According to Russia’s Central Bank, which includes only official wire transfers, migrant labor remittances
to Uzbekistan amounted to $5.7 billion in 2012. This equals 16.3 percent of the country's economy. This data, however, does not include the cash that labor migrants bring home. The real figure is most likely higher.
Despite Karimov's denial, beggars are a common sight on the streets of the capital.
There are an estimated 10 million to 12 million migrant laborers, mostly from Central Asia, working in Russia, many of them illegally. Many face exploitation
, discrimination, or worse, in the form of racially motivated attacks.
This is not the first time Karimov has expressed his dislike of Uzbekistan’s economic dependency on Russia. However, it is the first time he has expressed such strong criticism of Uzbekistan's migrant workers, a sensitive topic for many in the country where widespread poverty and high unemployment drive Uzbeks to seek work abroad.
At the beginning of this year, Karimov said it was a "shame on the nation"
that Uzbeks have to go abroad to seek work. His comment followed the murder of an Uzbek migrant who worked as a janitor in Moscow.
Authorities have stepped up efforts to prevent young men from going abroad as labor migrants. Parents and neighborhood chiefs have told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that they have had to sign documents acknowledging that it is their responsibility to make sure students finish secondary school. If they fail to do so, they will be guilty under Article 47 of the Administrative Code for "failing to provide education and good upbringing."