Perhaps the strangest piece of good news to come out of Central Asia so far this year is that Uzbekistan will maintain its strong pace of economic growth, despite the worsening global crisis. As the Foreign Economic Relations Minister Elyor Ganiyev said at a forum this week citing International Monetary Fund figures, Uzbek gross domestic product growth will hit 7 percent in 2009, a relatively small drop against 9 percent last year.

Ganiyev

Ganiyev

The official Uzbek forecast is a little more generous, putting economic growth this year at 7.8 percent, an achievement Ganiyev puts down to “new investment projects.”

According to the findings of an IMF mission that visited Uzbekistan in December,  the country “has remained resilient to the ongoing international credit crisis and the downturn in developed economies, with … large external current account and fiscal surpluses, further accumulation of foreign exchange reserves, and continued stability in the banking system.”

In explaining its reduced expectations for 2009, the IMF cites the dropping prices and demand for Uzbekistan’s export commodities, as well as the oft-cited diminution of remittances. Also, like many countries in the region, Uzbekistan’s lack of integration into the global economy will insulate it from the type of credit woes that have bedeviled Kazakhstan.

Perhaps one of the IMF’s most interesting findings is the idea that the government should coordinate with the lending sector to ensure a steady availability of cash _ which would make a change.

The state of the world economy may ironically prove to be a helpful boost to the instinctively autarchic Uzbek authorities, who can claim to have been proved right all along in their resolute determination to spurn Western capitalist models.

Loadsamoney

Uzbekistan: Loadsamoney

Speaking at a ceremony last month to mark the 16th anniversary of the Constitution, President Islam Karimov assured listeners in a keynote speech that the country had “sufficient reserves of resilience and the necessary resource base to ensure the steady and uninterrupted work of [its] financial, economic, budget and banking and credit systems.”

Taking a veiled pop at some of his neighbours, Karimov reminded the audience of the “ill-thought out external debt policy of many nations [that] made their economies vulnerable and very dependent on external factors and threats.”

To back this up, he cited the fact that Uzbekistan’s external debt is 13.3% of its GDP and is below 31% of its total exports.

It is in all this macroeconomic data that Karimov often seems to find solace, since there is nothing reassuring about the fact that anything between one-fifth and a quarter of the population Uzbekistan lives in poverty. There is also little in Karimov’s unique model, as he likes to describe it, that suggests the government is prepared to allow those sectors of the economy that will most benefit the poor to develop. Repeatedly, over the years, Uzbek authorities have clamped down on cross-border trade and heavily penalized small merchants.

It is hardly surprising that such large amounts of Uzbeks have been compelled to emigrate abroad, like so many of their Central Asian counterparts.

The country’s complete isolation means, however, that little firm information is available to the outside world about the scale of suffering that the majority of the population endures while a select minority benefits from the cash earned from cotton, gold and gas exports. In terms of public relations, the illusion of economic stability, not to say success, represents a victory for Karimov’s government, which will make its eventual unraveling only that much more bitter.

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