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In Uzbekistan, Climbing Down the Economic Ladder Pays - 2004-07-07


Uzbekistan is still most often described as the least developed and least reformed of all the former Soviet Republics

Imagine an economy where barbers and gas station attendants make more money than doctors, lawyers and teachers. That is the situation in Uzbekistan. An independent nation for more than a decade, Uzbekistan is still most often described as the least developed and least reformed of all the former Soviet Republics.

One of the most compelling sights along the ancient route known as the Silk Road is the oil boys. As young as seven, and none much older than 18, they chase down passing cars and trucks to see if they need any gasoline on the otherwise inhospitable stretch of dusty road.

When they get a buyer, the boy traders race off in the direction of nearby mud huts to collect the oil or gasoline from their older brothers or fathers. They then come and service the car for little more than a dollar. They often work in packs of three or four, sharing the work and the profits.

This boy says he routinely makes $100 a month selling gasoline.

He says the only trouble is he has to spend 24 hours a day out on the road, including eating and sleeping there.

He and others like him are trying any way they can to survive in a nation with one of the lowest economic growth rates and one of the lowest living standards among the former Soviet Republics.

Analysts and economists blame the government's slow and inconsistent economic reforms.

According to a recent World Bank report, Uzbekistan ranks 113th of 145 developing countries in the world. The bank is urging the Uzbek government to liberalize the currency market, reduce trade barriers, phase out central planning and create a more business-friendly environment. It has also criticized what the report called a culture of secrecy in Uzbekistan's economic sector, with the government withholding key information on the country's external debt and currency reserves.

In Uzbekistan's upside-down economy, barbers are among the big money-makers. This man in the Old Town of Bukhara owns his own shop. It was chock full of customers one recent day, despite the fact there are only two chairs.

The barber says everyone needs a haircut and a shave when the temperatures rise and that therein lies the success of his business. Still, the man says he wishes he had stuck with his studies and become a professional.

He says that on the one hand, he makes good money these days, but worries about what will happen if and when the Uzbek economy modernizes. He says he fears when that day comes he will be bumped to the bottom rung of the wage scale, as doctors, lawyers and teachers rise to the top.

Right now, many doctors in Uzbekistan rarely earn more than $15 a month. But this second year dental student in Bukhara has not let that sway her from pursuing a medical education.

Sayarah, 22, says the people who are earning big money now are doing so only temporarily. She says Uzbekistan is in the first stages of a transition to becoming a market economy. She adds that when the transition is completed, there will be greater demand for doctors and dentists and their salaries will rise.

In the meantime, some people are moving down the professional ladder in order to increase their salaries. This young man works as a security guard, after quitting what he says was a poorly paid job at a national bank. He expresses frustration with the current economic situation in Uzbekistan, saying people are not living well, but are merely surviving.

"If you have no money and no connections, it's very difficult here," he says. "But people are surviving. I don't know how. For example, they get $30 a month. It's a normal salary here. And still you know maybe some people don't eat meat, maybe they are just eating bread with tea and some sugar. That's it."

The man notes that a liter of bottled water in the local market cost the equivalent of 50 cents and bread is a bit more, as is sugar. The figures mean that the average person is not even able to buy bread once a day. But another man encountered on the street, a business lawyer, was not as critical. He says difficulties are to be expected in a transition economy and that things will improve eventually.

"It's natural that we are experiencing a lot of problems because the government doesn't really know how the economy must be controlled, or which way we are going to take," he explains. "They tried to take the Turkish model. They didn't like it. Now, they are trying some German way and then they understand that there should be our own policy on economy so this all brings so many hassles or problems. That's all. It will take a little time."

In Bukhara's sun-baked streets, a traditional craftsman ekes out a living making scissors, knives and the occasional sword, most of which are sold to foreign tourists. But lately there are few visitors after the deadly terrorist attacks of this past March, which the government blames on Islamic extremists. Still the man says he has no complaints about his trade, or the livelihood it affords him.

The man says that a locksmith or a metal worker never gets rich, and never gets poor either. We are just simple people making a living, he adds, in extraordinary times.

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