Economic growth in Uzbekistan is far below potential due to the country's poor investment climate and failure to attract foreign investment, an extremely restrictive trade regime, failure to reform the agricultural sector of the economy--potentially the engine of economic growth for this largely rural economy--and severe misallocation of resources due to nonfunctioning of the price mechanism as a result of government intervention in markets. The government has implemented a restrictive trade regime in order to meet its strategy of limiting imports of consumer goods. Due to the unreliability of government statistics, which often serve political rather than economic ends, it is difficult to make an accurate estimate of economic growth in Uzbekistan.
GDP: Real GDP growth in 2002 was likely no more than 2%. Inflation was approximately 50% in 2002, with a 150% average increase in prices of imported goods and a slight depreciation in domestically priced goods. The embassy believes real wages were stagnant during 2002.
Per capita GDP (U.S. Gov. est.): $350, 2001; $310, 2002. For 2003, unless the restrictive trade regime is changed, per capita GDP is likely to continue to fall. The EIU estimates that per capita GDP may fall as low as to $250.
Natural resources: Natural gas, petroleum, gold, coal, uranium, silver, copper, lead, zinc, tungsten, molybdenum.
Agriculture: Products--cotton, fourth-largest producer worldwide; vegetables, fruits, grain, livestock.
Industry: Types--textiles, food processing, machine building, metallurgy, natural gas.
Trade: Total exports (2002 est. 2.8 billion)--largest contribution from cotton, gold, natural gas, mineral fertilizers, ferrous metals, textiles, food products, automobiles. Major export markets--Russia 16.7%, Switzerland 8.3%, United Kingdom 7.2%, Kazakhstan 3.1%. Total imports--(2002 est. 2.5 billion): machinery and equipment, chemicals, metals; foodstuffs. Primary import partners--Russia 15.8%, South Korea 9.8%, United States 8.7%, Germany 8.7%.
External debt (2002 est.): $4.7 billion.
Economy of Uzbekistan
The government has been extremely cautious in moving to a market-based economy. Since independence, the government has stated that it is committed to a gradual transition to a free market economy. Although the government has significantly narrowed the gap between the black market and official exchange rate, its restrictive trade regime has crippled the economy. In addition to the urgent need to rescind its draconian trade measures, the government needs to achieve full current account convertibility. Substantial structural reform also is needed, particularly in the area of improving the investment climate for foreign investors and in freeing the agricultural sector from smothering state control. Until now, continuing restrictions on currency convertibility and other government measures to control economic activity, including the implementation of severe import restrictions and closure of Uzbekistan's borders with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have constrained economic growth and led international lending organizations to suspend or scale back credits. The recent closure of the borders with neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan has almost paralyzed Uzbekistan's consumer market.
The government has made some progress in reducing inflation and the budget deficit, but government statistics understate both, while overstating economic growth. There are no reliable statistics on unemployment, which is believed to be high and growing. The economy is based primarily on agriculture and agricultural processing; Uzbekistan is a major producer and exporter of cotton. It also is a major producer of gold with the largest open-pit gold mine in the world and has substantial deposits of copper, strategic minerals, gas, and oil.
GDP and Employment
The government claims that the GDP rose 4.2% in 2002; however, it is believed that it was no greater than 2%. Unemployment and underemployment are very high, but reliable figures are difficult to obtain, as no recent credible surveying has been done. Underemployment in the agricultural sector is particularly high, which is important given the fact that 60% of the population is rural-based. Many observers believe that employment growth and real wage growth has been stagnant, given virtually no growth in output.
Literacy in Uzbekistan is almost universal, and workers are generally well-educated and trained. Most local technical and managerial training does not meet international business standards, but foreign companies engaged in production report that locally hired workers learn quickly and work effectively. Foreign firms generally find that younger workers, untainted by the Soviet system, work well at all levels. The government emphasizes foreign education and each year sends about 50 students to the United States, Europe, and Japan for university degrees, after which they have a commitment to work for the government for 5 years. Reportedly, about 60% of the students who study abroad find employment with foreign companies on their return, despite their 5-year commitment to work in the government. Some American companies offer special training programs in the United States to their local employees.
In addition, Uzbekistan subsidizes studies for students at Westminster University--the only Western-style institution in Uzbekistan. In 2002, the government "Hope" Program is paying for 98 out of 155 students studying at Westminister. For the next academic year, Westminster is expecting to admit 360 students, from which Umid is expecting to pay for 160 students. The education at Westminster costs $4,800 per academic year.
With the closure or downsizing of many foreign firms, it is relatively easy to find qualified, well-trained employees, and salaries are very low by Western standards. Salary caps, which the government implements in an apparent attempt to prevent firms from circumventing restrictions on withdrawal of cash from banks, prevent many foreign firms from paying their workers as much as they would like. Labor market regulations in Uzbekistan are similar to those of the Soviet Union, with all rights guaranteed but some rights unobserved. Unemployment is a growing problem, and the number of people looking for jobs in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Southeast Asia is increasing each year. According to official Ministry of Labor estimates, around 100,000 citizens of Uzbekistan work abroad.
Prices; Monetary/Fiscal Policy
Inflation was approximately 50% in 2002. From 1996 until the spring of 2003, the official and so-called "commercial" exchange rate were highly overvalued. Many businesses and individuals were unable to buy dollars legally at these rates, so a widespread black market developed to meet hard currency demand. However, by mid-2003, the gap between the black market, official, and commercial rates had been reduced to approximately 8%. The government claims that it will reach currency convertibility in the near future. Liberalization of the trade regime, however, is a prerequisite for Uzbekistan to proceed to an IMF-financed program.
Outstanding external debt reached $4.7 billion at the end of 2002. Tax collection rates remained high, due to the use of the banking system by the government as a collection agency. Technical assistance from the World Bank, Office of Technical Assistance at the Treasury Department, and from the UNDP is being provided in reforming the Central Bank and Ministry of Finance into institutions, which conduct market-oriented fiscal and monetary policy.
Agriculture and Natural Resources
Agriculture and the agroindustrial sector contribute more than 40% to Uzbekistan's GDP. Cotton is Uzbekistan's dominant crop, accounting for roughly 45% of the country's exports. Gold is second at 22%. Uzbekistan also produces significant amounts of silk, fruit, and vegetables. Virtually all agriculture involves heavy irrigation. Farmers and agricultural workers have very low incomes because the government uses the difference between the world prices of cotton and wheat and what it pays the farmers to subsidize highly inefficient capital intensive industrial concerns, such as factories producing automobiles, airplanes, and tractors.
Consequently, agricultural productivity is low, with many farmers focusing on producing fruits and vegetables--for which supply and demand determine the price--on small plots of land, as well as smuggling cotton and wheat across the border with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in order to obtain higher prices.
Minerals and mining also are important to Uzbekistan's economy. Gold is Uzbekistan's second most important foreign exchange earner at 22%. Uzbekistan is the world's seventh-largest producer, at about 80 tons p.a., and holds the fourth-largest reserves. Uzbekistan has an abundance of natural gas, used both for domestic consumption and export; oil almost sufficient for domestic needs; and significant reserves of copper, lead, zinc, tungsten, and uranium. Inefficiency in energy use is extremely high, given the failure to use realistic price signals to cause users to conserve energy.
Trade and Investment
Uzbekistan has adopted a policy of import substitution. The multiple exchange rate system and the highly over-regulated trade regime has led to both import and export declines since 1996, although imports have declined more than exports, as the government squeezed imports to maintain hard currency reserves. Draconian tariffs and border closures imposed in the summer and fall of 2002 led to massive decreases in imports of both consumer products and capital equipment. Uzbekistan's traditional "trade" partners are NIS states, notably Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the other Central Asian countries. Non-NIS partners have been increasing in importance in recent years, with the U.S., Korea, Germany, Japan, and Turkey being the most active.
Uzbekistan is a member of the IMF, World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. It has observer status at the World Trade Organization, is a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization, and has publicly stated its intention to accede to the World Trade Organization. It is a signatory to the Convention on Settlement of Investment Disputes Between States and Nationals of Other States, the Paris Convention on Industrial Property, the Madrid Agreement on Trademarks Protection, and the Patent Cooperation Treaty. In 2002, Uzbekistan was again placed on the special "301" Watch List for lack of intellectual copyright protection.
Uzbekistan's lack of currency convertibility has caused foreign investment inflows to dwindle to a trickle. In fact, Uzbekistan has the lowest level of FDI per capita in the CIS. Since Uzbekistan's independence, U.S. firms have invested roughly $500 million in Uzbekistan. Large U.S. investors include Newmont, reprocessing tailings from the Muruntau gold mine; Case Corporation, manufacturing and servicing cotton harvesters and tractors; Coca Cola, with bottling plants in Tashkent, Namangan, and Samarkand; Texaco, producing lubricants for sale in the Uzbek market; and Baker Hughes, in oil and gas development. No large new investments have taken place from the United States in the last 5 years.