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Central Asia: People Left To Cope With Miserable Salaries

Some Central Asians supplement low salaries by selling produce or working second jobs (RFE/RL) September 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Even though some Central Asian countries increased public-sector wages this month, the average salary in the region -- less than $100 per month, with the exception of oil-rich Kazakhstan -- is still barely enough to buy basic foodstuffs.

The meager wages contribute greatly to the widespread corruption and bribery that exists in Central Asia.

Ziyodullo Razzoqov, a school teacher in Uzbekistan's Jizzakh region, says that with his salary -- around $80 a month -- he can only afford the most essential foodstuffs such as bread, oil, and vegetables, as well as essential clothes for his family of five.

But the family has to cut down on many other things. Razzoqov's children attend school, and "they need food, clothing, and school supplies. But we cannot afford all those expenses. Our salary is not enough for those clothes and the other stuff they sell in the market," he said.

Razzoqov's situation is not unique in Uzbekistan and the rest of Central Asia. Most public-sector workers in the region struggle to make ends meet with their miserably low wages.

Average official monthly salaries in the countries, excluding Kazakhstan, range from around $35 in Tajikistan to about $96 in Kyrgyzstan.

Higher Wages, Without Great Changes

The Tajik government has promised to increase public employees' wages by 50 percent next month, while teachers in Turkmenistan will receive a 40 percent pay raise with their September salaries.

Kyrgyzstan started to gradually increase public wages earlier this year.

During independence day celebrations in Uzbekistan on September 1, Uzbek President Islam Karimov announced that his government is considering major increases in pay for state workers. "In the next three years it has to be our duty that our workers' and public-service employees' wages, as well as pensions and student stipends, will be increased 2 to 2 1/2 times," Karimov said.

However, many people in Central Asia do not believe that such salary increases will change their lives dramatically.

People complain about the disproportionately high prices compared to their incomes.

Schoolteachers in Kyrgyzstan earn between $40-$70 a month. This salary can buy 20 kilograms of beef or 10 kilograms of butter.

In Tajikistan, where doctors officially make around $35 a month, the price of a liter of vegetable oil is $1, and a kilogram of beef costs $4.

Often when governments announce plans or even intentions to increase wages, merchants in local bazaars raise their food prices.

In addition, many teachers and doctors -- especially in rural areas -- do not receive their wages on time and sometimes get paid only after a two- or three-month delay.

People try to find solutions elsewhere. A young woman who lives in a Turkmen village and did not want to give her name told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that many people who have full-time jobs have to find additional sources of income.

"It's hard to earn a living. [Many] people have to do gardening and sell fruits [and vegetables] in the markets. This is how they manage to live," she said.

Seeking Work Abroad

Miserable salaries have forced hundred of thousands of men -- professional doctors, engineers, and teachers among them -- to spend several months a year as migrant laborers in Russia.

Many women in Central Asia have learned new skills, such as dressmaking and hat-making.

Orchards, vegetable farms, and livestock have become additional sources of income and food for many families.

Merime, a 62-year-old Bishkek resident, recently retired after almost three decades working as a doctor. Merime says Central Asian family traditions have helped many people survive the economic hardships.

She says Central Asian families are usually large and everyone -- including children and pensioners -- try to take part in earning their families' living. Elderly people count on their children's and relatives' support.

Merime sells vegetables in a Bishkek market to supplement her meager pension. "As a former doctor my monthly pension is nearly $25. This money is hardly enough to pay for utility bills. If I didn't have children and didn't earn some extra money, I wouldn't survive," she said.

Bribery Expected

Experts say low wages have contributed to the widespread bribery and corruption in the region.

Even teachers routinely charge their students for every test and exam, citing their small wages.

While medical treatment is officially free in public hospitals, it is a common practice in Central Asia that patients give money to doctors for services performed.

Police -- including traffic police, customs officials, airport workers, and tax authorities -- almost all over the region have become notorious for extorting money.

Transparency International (TI), a Berlin-based group that fights corruption worldwide, placed four Central Asian countries -- Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- among the 20 most-corrupt countries in the world in its 2006 report.

Shokirjon Hakimov, the head of the Law Department at the University of International Relations in Dushanbe, told RFE/RL that bribery has become an everyday reality -- a part of the region's culture.

Hakimov says that if the situation does not change in the next few years, the four poorest Central Asian countries could further plunge into corruption, with people completely losing faith in their governments and leaders.

(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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