As China Caps City Populations, Its Neighbor Rolls Out the Red Carpet
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Decades of strict population control have left Tashkent lacking adequate skilled labor, resulting in a brain drain.
Shukhrat Latipov, 25, needs to renew a special permit called a propiska every six months just to work in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. Without that, he risks expulsion to his hometown, Navoi, 300 miles northwest of Tashkent. This isn’t some George Orwell story: For Uzbek citizens not born in the capital, this is the reality. But change is in the air, and without it, Latipov wouldn’t even be in Tashkent.
The new Uzbek government of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is slowly liberalizing the draconian Tashkent population-control rule from the Soviet era that was strictly continued under Islam Karimov, who led the nation from independence in 1991 till his death in 2016. This transition coincides with China’s efforts to limit the population of Beijing and Shanghai. Under the old system in Uzbekistan, only the following were entitled to permits: those born in the capital or to parents who were, those married to propiska holders and government workers. This led to a population growth of just 14 percent in Tashkent between 1991 and 2017, compared to 56 percent growth in Uzbekistan as a whole.
But these strict restrictions now threaten to undermine an economic boom linked to radical reforms under the new government — a boom that depends upon a steady supply of skilled labor from other parts of Uzbekistan. Tashkent’s economy grew by 8 percent in 2017, the fastest of all regions in the country. Another concern is brain drain: more than 2 million Uzbeks, or 7 percent of the country’s population, live abroad, many of them working in countries like Russia, where propiska was ended in 1991.
So, in January, the government allowed the “temporary propiska,” renewable every six months, that Latipov uses. The government has also announced that outsiders could get propiskas if they buy apartments in Tashkent that cost more than $58,000. According to the country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, 15,000 people have so far received a propiska in Tashkent this way in 2018. In February, the Ministry of Justice announced future plans under which the duration of the temporary propiska will be extended to a year, and homeowners will be eligible for a permanent one independent of the price of their apartment.
I want [the permanent] propiska.
Shukhrat Latipov, a worker in Tashkent who holds a temporary permit
Dumping the propiska altogether could lead to overpopulation, some fear. And the liberalization steps so far still leave many challenges for those not from Tashkent. But the city’s per capita income, twice that of the rest of the country, makes it an attractive destination for youth like Latipov. “I want [the permanent] propiska,” he says.
For the moment, the government insists it has no plans to eliminate the system altogether and remains worried that economic imbalances between regions may lead to a flood of citizens entering Tashkent. In January, Ulugbek Tashkhodzhaev, the deputy chief of the main office of migration and citizenship for the internal affairs ministry, said the country needed “big preparations” before it could contemplate ending residential permits for Tashkent.
But the country’s moves to relax the system still stand in stark contrast with China’s new efforts to enforce population limits for Beijing and Shanghai. China has long had its own housing registration system, called the hukou. But over the years, these rules had been relaxed. In 2017, however, the country’s two biggest cities decided to strictly adhere to population caps by expelling migrants and demolishing their neighborhoods. Uzbekistan’s president in January said that his fellow citizens should be able to live anywhere in the country without restrictions, laying out a vision that will mean the end of the propiska, even if takes years.
Not everyone is convinced that relaxing the norms is best for Tashkent. Much of the city’s infrastructure dates back to the ’70s and ’80s, and some Tashkent residents are worried that a propiska liberalization could paralyze the capital’s water system, sewage and electric supplies, which are already struggling with inadequate maintenance. No new city blocks were constructed between 1991 and 2016, and only five new subway stations were opened during this time. Moscow, in comparison, built 67 stations in the same period.
Schools, universities and hospitals are also overcrowded. Svetlana Istomova, an elementary schoolteacher, says that classes now have 45 to 50 children each, against the official norm of 35. Schools also don’t have enough teachers, who have to work longer shifts to accommodate demand. “I think that canceling of [the] propiska system will lead to chaos in schools,” says Istomova.
But Mirziyoyev’s reforms to liberalize the currency and make it easier for foreign firms to invest in the country are sparking an economic renaissance that is finding expression in the city’s infrastructure and fostering a construction boom. New city blocks are sprouting up like mushrooms after rain. For the moment, most are empty. The government is allowing people to move into Tashkent “probably because they need to stimulate the construction boom,” says Khusan Ganiyev, a real estate expert in Tashkent.
The first phase of propiska relaxations isn’t enough for many. In a country with an average wage of $200 a month, a citizen would need to work for 25 years to buy a $58,000 apartment and secure a life-long permit. “I can’t afford to buy any apartments,” says Latipov. While marrying a woman with a propiska would be one way around that challenge, he would need to live for a year with his spouse before getting the status, to prove the marriage isn’t a sham. With a temporary propiska, all it would take is for him to lose his job before he’s sent back home.
Still, housing in Tashkent is getting cheaper. One-bedroom apartments in an old house in Tashkent are now available for $15,000. And the government plans to launch a project to construct apartments for families with low and moderate incomes between 2020 and 2025. For the country’s new government, the relaxations in the propiska could help negate criticism from the international community, which has often viewed the system as violating human rights. And even with shortcomings, that easing in norms is already allowing Latipov to dream.