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As Uzbekistan Grapples With Aging Populace, Elderly Asked To Return Pensions

Uzbek pensioners gathered on March 13 to collect their pension payments in central Sirdarya Province.
Uzbek pensioners gathered on March 13 to collect their pension payments in central Sirdarya Province.
Uzbekistan's pensioners can hardly be accused of excess.

Most of the country's more than 6 million retirees survive on pensions of just $100 a month -- less than half the official average salary and barely enough to cover food costs alone. And with widespread unemployment that money is often the main source of income not only for the pensioners, but for their extended families as well.

But now Tashkent is arguing that Uzbek pensioners have too much money -- and are demanding that they give it back.

Finance Ministry investigators recently announced that pension benefits had been "incorrectly calculated" and that pensioners were collectively holding a surplus of at least $105 million that the government wants returned. That number, the ministry added, is expected to grow as more cases are reviewed.

An employee with the Uzbek Pension Fund, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said the blame falls with pensioners who lie about their past salary in order to collect a higher pension.

"If a pensioner got a salary, for example, of 100 soms while they were working, then what they did was try to report their salary as being 200 or 300 soms -- that way they could receive a higher pension," the source said. "And that's the main reason why the Pension Fund has paid out more than it's supposed to."

The controversy comes as the impoverished Central Asian nation grapples with how to pay for aging populations when the workforce that funds their pension systems is dwindling.

It's a common equation that is confounding countries all over the world. But for Uzbekistan, whose authoritarian leader Islam Karimov has been slow to implement economic reforms, the problem may reach crisis proportions.

People over 60 currently make up around 6.2 percent of the country's 28 million people. By 2050, according to the UN, that percentage will be 21 percent -- meaning one out of five citizens may theoretically be drawing a pension even as the birthrate of future workers slips from nearly three children per family to just over one.

Paper Trail

The recent government call for cash may be seen as an attempt to prevent a looming liquidity crisis. But at the same time, pensioners say authorities have played their own role in the current controversy.

One 72-year-old retiree living in the Khorazm region of the Urganch district in northwest Uzbekistan says he was the director of a private business in 2002 when it was illegally shut down and its documents seized by authorities.

Without the paperwork, he says, his employees have been unable to prove their earning history and are now being accused of lying in order to receive higher pensions.

"One of my former employees was charged with illegally receiving a surplus of more than 9 million soms ($4,900) in pension payments," he says. "[Pension Fund authorities] told him that he had to pay back this entire amount in order to restore regular pension payments."

For years, pensioners have complained of the difficulty of retrieving pensions, which are often late, missing, or, more recently, provided in the form of debit cards accepted in only a handful of high-end supermarkets.

The Som Stops...Where?

Now it's the government that's having difficulty getting the pensions back.

In many instances, pension officials have put the burden on local authorities to retrieve the funds.

But one such neighborhood councilwoman, speaking anonymously, says the pensioners simply have no money to give back.

"I've known former neighborhood heads who had to give back 2 or 3 million soms of their own money to the state because people in their neighborhoods weren't able to pay back their pensions -- they'd already eaten them," she says. "So the chiefs are forced to pay from their own pocket. Our previous chief was dismissed. He's still walking around trying to collect money from people. I don't know exactly, but I heard that he needs to pay 3.2 million soms back to the state."

The Finance Ministry has announced that most pensioners can expect to see their pension payments decreased even if they pay back the disputed surplus. In the meantime, the government is not so subtly urging a return to a so-called Chinese model, in which younger generations assume the bulk of the responsibility for the care of aging relatives.

With more than one-quarter of Uzbekistan's population living below the poverty line, however, a shift from state paternalism to family care is not expected to succeed.

Written by Daisy Sindelar, reported by Barno Anvar of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

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