Migrant workers’ struggles push Uzbekistan to open up

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Maksud Mahmudov was among millions of Uzbeks who left their impoverished homeland as soon as they finished school to find work in Russia. In 2014, he and others came back as the Russian economy floundered, but it took two more years to find work.

The 27-year-old now runs teams of builders for hire, taking advantage of a construction boom in his home city of Samarkand following a 2016 change of leadership in the Central Asian state, one of the world’s most tightly controlled countries.

“I used to earn around $500 a month doing construction work, but then the treatment of migrants worsened, we were paid less, it became harder to obtain a work permit, so I had to return to my home country in 2014,” he said, recalling a year in which falling oil prices hit Russia’s energy-dependent economy.

That change is now encouraging Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoyev to open up the economy of ex-Soviet Uzbekistan, which for nearly three decades rejected market reforms, leaving it largely isolated and with mass unemployment.

Uzbekistan was able to ignore the issue as long as Russia was absorbing millions of migrants, but plummeting oil prices sent Russia into recession in 2015 and many migrants had to leave.

Russian central bank data shows Uzbeks have sent home 42 percent less money on average in 2015-17 than in 2011-14. Volumes picked up somewhat over the last couple of years—when the Russian economy and the rouble stabilized—but are still well below those seen before the oil price crash and sanctions.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who have re-engaged with Tashkent under Mirziyoyev, say implementing market reforms such as privatization are the only way to revive the economy and create new jobs.

Failing to do so could prompt Central Asia’s own equivalent of the Arab Spring, a senior World Bank economist warned in 2017, referring to a series of uprisings in 2011 that toppled longstanding leaders in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya.

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