Tashkent hosted an international conference on “Vital Reserves in the Realization of Food Program in Uzbekistan” during June 5–6. Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov gave an opening speech at the event. As the timing of the conference was chosen at the peak of the fruit and vegetable season in Uzbekistan, the welcoming speech that President Karimov delivered at the conference nine months ahead of the presidential elections was akin to a campaign speech. It recapped the country’s transformation in the past 20 years, its achievements and its main principles for development. The speech clearly indicates the government’s satisfaction and pride in where the country stands nowadays. Listing economic achievements, Karimov said that what has been done is akin to fantasy. In particular, according to the speech, the following milestones were achieved under his tenure as head of the country: 1) the average life expectancy has increased by 7.5 years (from 66 years to 73.5 years for men while women’s life expectancy has risen to 75 years); 2) the proportion of children with low body weight has decreased more than twofold (from 4 percent to 1.8 percent), and their average height increased by 3 centimeters (1.2 inches); 3) agricultural production has increased twofold in the last 20 years, while grain production has increased from 1 million tons to 7.8 million tons, turning the country into an exporter of wheat; 4) the land for cotton production has been halved and the freed space given to food crops. (Uzbekistan National News Agency, June 8).
President Karimov credited those achievements to Uzbekistan’s choice of a step-by-step transition from a command economy to a market economy. “As the former chairman of state planning and minister of finance, I know the insides of the system,” he said. Karimov continued that the successful transformation was due to the “Uzbek model” that was based on five principles: 1) priority of the economy over politics (“A hungry man is said to be listening to music through his stomach,” Karimov pointed out metaphorically.); 2) the state is the main reformer; 3) supremacy of the rule of law; 4) a strong social policy focusing on youth—with 34 percent of the budget spent on education and 15 percent on health care; 5) a phased and gradual reform that has started with creating a strong legislative base and training a generation of young specialists. This principle has been guided by two slogans, according to Karimov: “Do not destroy the old house until you build a new one” and “Reforms are not for the sake of reforms, but for the people.”
The Social Progress Initiative that measures social improvement apart from economic development shows indeed that Uzbekistan is slightly ahead of some of its neighbors in Central Asia (Social Progress Initiative). The scores are based on a 0–100 scale, with a maximum score of 100, using publicly available data for the past 10 years. Among the different categories, Uzbekistan showed relative strength in the Nutrition and Basic Medical Care index (92.1) that includes such subcategories as undernourishment, food deficit, maternal mortality and stillbirth. In the category Access to Basic Knowledge, with subcategories such as adult literacy and lower and upper secondary school enrollment, Uzbekistan scored 94.29, but the country scored lowest in the region in the Access to Information, Personal Rights, and Ecosystem Sustainability categories. In overall comparison with other Central Asian countries Uzbekistan is slightly behind Kazakhstan and just ahead of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
“This is what modern Uzbekistan is,” Karimov said in the same speech referring to the country’s budget surplus, GDP growth of 8 percent on average and a low public debt of 11 percent of GDP—against the backdrop of the global financial crisis. However, the executive summary of Vision 2030 for Uzbekistan, prepared collaboratively with international counterparts, predicts that the external debt will likely grow gradually as the government is planning to finance up to two-thirds of its investment program from external sources (World Bank, April 2014).
Karimov also predicted a twofold increase in produce yield by 2020 and expressed a desire to expand Uzbekistan’s export potential. Although no one disputes the quality of produce from Uzbekistan, in particular local grapes, mentioned the most in the President’s speech, the government must overcome challenges with packaging, storage and logistics, while preserving the quality of the fresh produce. Realizing this, Tashkent hosted a smaller conference on “Packaging and Exporting of Produce” on June 4, the first of its kind in the country. The forum was reportedly not limited to day-to-day bureaucrats only, but attracted farmers and entrepreneurs (anhor.uz, June 5). The planned logistics center in Latvia, in the port of Liepaja, to be built by Uzbekistan, will have a small storage facility with the capacity of 1.5 tons (approximately 3,000 pounds) of produce a day that will allow Uzbekistan to test the delivery of produce abroad (Uzbekistan National News Agency, June 8).
Looking at the theme of the first conference, it is clear that the event was designed to not only give recognition to Uzbekistan’s agricultural products, but also to provide an opportunity for President Karimov to list the achievements under his tenure. With the presidential elections scheduled for early 2015, his speech in effect initiates his reelection campaign.