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Qishloq Ovozi

Uzbek President Islam Karimov has predicted that GDP growth will hit 7.8 percent in 2016.

A new group of people is joining the ranks of the unemployed in Uzbekistan. And for those already out of work and seeking new jobs, the new arrivals are a very bad sign.

The newcomers are from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, the ministry tasked with helping create jobs. President Islam Karimov signed an order on February 22 to reorganize the ministry and redistribute some of its duties to the Health and Finance ministries.

It appears there will be no need to transfer additional personnel to these two ministries. By some accounts, nearly half the workers from the former Ministry of Labor and Social Security are slated to be laid off.

For these now-former employees of the ministry, the situation became even worse when they discovered they would not receive any severance pay. As some of them told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, the bad news didn't stop there. It turns out many were not paid for their work in March, and it seems they won't ever be paid for that work. Apparently their employment at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security was officially terminated at the end of February and no one told them.

There have been some questions about the health of Uzbekistan's economy despite the World Bank's rosy forecast of 7.5 percent GDP growth for the Central Asian country this year and the even rosier prediction by Karimov that GDP growth would hit 7.8 percent in 2016.

These bright economic outlooks have come despite information from inside Uzbekistan that the situation is far from well.

For more than a year, people inside the country have been telling Ozodlik that prices are rising, the real value of their salaries is decreasing, the black market rate for the national currency -- the som -- is more than twice the official rate, and that some people, including state employees, are not even receiving wages on time.

A group of employees from the Customs Committee in Uzbekistan’s eastern Andijon Province told Ozodlik their wages were reduced by 15 percent starting in March and said that, generally, wages were not being paid on time.

Ozodlik contacted Jamshid Rahmedov, an accountant at the Customs Committee. Rahmedov confirmed the reduction in pay but said employees had been receiving a 15 percent bonus every year for several years automatically but that that policy has now changed. Rahmedov said bonuses based on performance would continue to be paid.

Rahmedov also admitted there are wage arrears. He blamed a shortage of cash in Uzbekistan’s banks for the delayed payments.

There are long lines at petrol stations and chronic shortages of gas -- sometimes, a total suspension of supplies -- in homes around the country during winter. That despite the fact that Uzbekistan is a gas exporter.

However, gas exports have dropped and the price of gas on world markets has dropped to less than half what it was a few years ago. Uzbekistan will sell some 3 billion to 4 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas to Russia this year after selling about 1 bcm to Russia last year. In 2009, Uzbekistan shipped 15 bcm to Russia.

Uzbekistan has an agreement to sell China 10 bcm annually. But the General Administration of Customs of the People’s Republic of China said in March 2015 that China had not imported gas from Uzbekistan since early that year. In September, an official at Uzbekistan’s state oil and gas company, Uzbekneftegaz, told Ozodlik that between 2012 and 2015 China had purchased 6.5 bcm of gas in total.

And although it's not officially part of the country’s GDP, remittances from Uzbekistan’s migrant workers in Russia amounted to some $6.633 billion for 2013 but dropped to $3.05 billion for 2015.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report
Get Healthy! That’s An Order.
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It's National Health Month again in Turkmenistan and I'm sure many of you have seen the photographs and videos of the people of Turkmenistan exercising all around the capital, Ashgabat, and other places around the country.

Some of them might not appear to be in the best physical shape, but they certainly all look happy. They have to, it's their patriotic duty, and they could lose their jobs if they were not out there smiling and exercising.

But these public expressions of patriotic pride in a healthy population have a price, and it's the people who are paying it.

Obviously, these health events are rehearsed and staged, as the color-coordination of the participants indicates -- sections of bicycle riders or joggers wearing blue or green or some other color clothing. It's very reminiscent of holiday celebrations in North Korea.

That got us wondering about what happens before these events take place -- what preparations are needed to stage something like National Health Month. So RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, did some investigating and here's what we found out.

April 7 was the day of the big bicycle ride. One of the great images to come from this event is the photograph of President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov riding a bike, wearing his safety helmet, sunglasses, and dressed in a green and white sweat suit.

To me personally the picture says, "Gaze upon me and despair," but also provides a look at what participants must have to ride their bicycles with the rest of Turkmenistan's health-loving people in public.

To participate in the bike-riding portion of Health Month obviously one needs a bicycle. Look close and you'll notice they all have pretty much the same bicycles. As mentioned, there are sections of bike-riders wearing blue, or green, or white sweat suits, and everybody is wearing a safety helmet (as everybody always should).

The responsibility for purchasing the proper bicycle, equipment, and attire falls entirely on the rider. The cost -- 850 manats, or about $210 at the official rate.

We didn't have much luck finding out who sells the bicycles. All we could find out was that the company responsible is a member of the Trade and Entrepreneurs Association and the stores that sell the bicycles in Ashgabat are called Olympia.

Although there are bicycle shops in Turkmenistan, it is not left up to the participants to go to one of these stores and buy a bicycle. Our correspondent in Ashgabat, Amanmyrat Bugaev, said ministries, for example, calculate how many people will participate and someone from the individual ministries purchases that number of bicycles and accoutrements. Participants reimburse their organizations for the cost.

Ministries and other organizations fielding riders and joggers receive instructions beforehand about which colors their personnel are supposed to wear to these events.

When state camera crews fan out across the city to record the healthy and happy people of Turkmenistan, there are two categories of participants in the events -- those actually riding or running, and the enthusiastic spectators.

For those actually engaging in exercise, rehearsals for their part in festivities may have started as far back as 20 to 25 days before the big day. On the day of the event, these participants must show up several hours ahead of the start.

Bugaev said the arrival time for spectators depended on the event. If President Berdymukhammedov is scheduled to join in, spectators must be in place three to four hours ahead of the starting time. Elderly people are allowed to bring folding chairs but these must all be removed 20 minutes before the event begins. The spectacle itself rarely lasts even two hours.

Based on material from RFE/RL's Turkmen Service

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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