Uzbekistan's government is touting an ambitious plan to create at least half a million new jobs this year for unemployed young people through a project called Every Entrepreneur Is Support For Youth.
It's a top-down scheme that requires private businesspeople to do the heavy lifting.
Backed by President Shavkat Mirziyoev in a speech to a youth forum in December, the project obliges every entrepreneur in the country to hire at least one active job-seeker between the ages of 18 and 30.
It comes as many small- and medium-sized businesses are absorbing significant losses from a full year of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But in the tightly controlled Central Asian country of around 34 million people, noncompliance with a presidential order is a risky option.
Still, some entrepreneurs have complained to RFE/RL that they have neither the resources nor the need to take on new employees.
They include the heads of small, family-run businesses that rarely hire outside workers so as to keep costs to a minimum.
Rustam Ruzmetov, who owns a car-repair shop, has reluctantly agreed to hire two new workers under the government project. He says his business, in northwestern Khorezm province, doesn't make enough to pay their wages.
But he fears ending up in the authorities' "bad book" if he refused.
"Local officials told me, 'Take on two young people, at least as apprentices,'" Ruzmetov told RFE/RL.
"My business had already been in the red for some time, and I don't know how I'm going to pay for two additional workers," he said. "But if I refused, officials would [respond] by putting pressure on my business, for instance through the tax office."
'I Had No Choice'
An entrepreneur who runs a family-run confectionery in Bukhara and didn't want his name disclosed said he was ordered to provide jobs for five young people referred to him by local authorities.
He told RFE/RL that officials demanded that entrepreneurs sign "letters of guarantee" formally committing themselves to hiring new workers.
The Bukhara businessman complained that he can't afford to pay five additional employees.
His factory reopened only recently after being shut down for six months by anti-pandemic restrictions.
"With this project, the authorities are putting further strain on people who are already on the verge of [bankruptcy]," he said. "Officials from the Bukhara Public Service Agency promised me various incentives in exchange for hiring the new workers. When I told them I don't have the money to pay [new employees], the officials said, 'Just sign the guarantee letter, then we'll see.' I had no choice but to sign the document."
Several regional officials involved in the implementation of the project acknowledged that they are under pressure to collect as many letters of guarantee as possible.
"It feels like a sham. The most important thing is to report to the governor that a certain number of young people have been provided with employment," an official at the Samarkand regional Public Service Agency said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of possible retribution.
RFE/RL contacted authorities in the capital, Tashkent, and within several provincial public service agencies who declined to comment on the widespread complaints over the youth employment project.
The Every Entrepreneur Is Support For Youth project is part of Tashkent's wider initiative to tackle unemployment.
Even senior government officials acknowledge that joblessness is higher than the official 2020 figure of 13 percent.
Before the pandemic, an estimated 6 million Uzbek migrant workers routinely traveled to Russia, Kazakhstan, and other countries in search of income. For the past year, many of them have been trapped at home by border closures and travel restrictions.
In late 2020, the government announced plans to allocate tens of millions of dollars in special business loans and training programs aimed at providing jobs for young people.
Local media report that six-day workshops have opened across the country as part of a training project known as Youth 1+1. Those who complete the training course can apply for special business loans of around $3,000.
Those who set up small businesses can get loans of up to $21,400, local media said.
Mirziyoev instructed regional governors to organize meetings with young people to review the situation every six months.
In January, Mirziyoev also demanded that private farmers devote some of their agricultural land to young people so the latter could generate income by growing crops.
Over the objections of the farmers, the land distribution began in February ahead of the new farming season. But in a few cases, those who received the land have complained that authorities reversed their decision just days later.
They include a group of 14 young people whose land in their native Samarkand Province was taken away again before they could begin cultivating it.
The men, residents of the village of Qiyqim, were each given about 40 acres of land in Samarkand's Qushrabot district in an official ceremony covered extensively by local television stations.
During the February 24 ceremony, Kholbek Kubaev, the head of the Qushrabot Youth Affairs Department, said the event marked "the beginning of the process of land distribution to young unemployed people."
The Qiyqim men said they were excited at the prospect of earning their own money despite the fact that the land was on a steep hill, with no irrigation or other access to water.
They said they planned to drill artesian wells and the district government promised to help with funding.
"We planned to grow a vineyard and also plant peas and other suitable crops there," one of the men told RFE/RL.
"We were happy that we didn't have to go to Russia anymore," he said. "But as soon as we started plans to develop the land, the district government said we couldn't have it."
The group was told they might receive land in another area where some 25 hectares of farmland had been allocated for the president's project.
But they say their names are not on the list of recipients there.
Contacted by RFE/RL, Mukhtor Quvondiqov, the deputy head of Qushrabot Agricultural Affairs Department, insisted that the government hadn't taken back any land from anyone.
Kubaev from the Qushrabot Youth Affairs Department declined to answer questions about the situation.