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WASHINGTON - Uzbek leaders, like others in Central Asia, face an additional challenge as they marshal resources to confront a post-coronavirus future - a human capital deficit following decades in which some of its most talented citizens have left to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.
Now, the nearly 4-year-old reform-minded government of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev is appealing for some of those expatriates to come home.
"You left or stayed abroad because there were no opportunities to achieve your dreams," said Minister of Foreign Trade and Investments Sardor Umurzakov in an address to Uzbek professionals in January. "But the times we dreamed of are here."
The Mirziyoyev government is appealing to altruism and patriotism, but realizes that is not enough. It is putting in place a program of incentives to attract new talent for the country's political, economic, and intellectual establishment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also attracted fresh attention to existing efforts such as the "El-yurt umidi" or "Nation's Hope" Foundation. With an initial government investment of $75 million in late 2018, the program envisioned training 5,000 specialists within two to three years at top international schools.
"The state is funding graduate, PhD, postgraduate, and training opportunities," said the foundation's leader, Adham Bekmurodov, with a goal "to place them in government institutions where they can work to speed up reforms."
Last fall, the fund had 907 fellows spread across the globe, with nearly 700 attending professional training programs. The next stage aims to supply foreign-educated specialists to the private sector.
The foundation's effort to forge networks is assisted by an expert council of scientists, entrepreneurs, financiers and doctors. In 2017, when Mirziyoyev made his first trip to the United States, he met 18 professionals in New York, urging their return to help reform Uzbekistan.
Similar stops in Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo allowed Mirziyoyev to meet more successful Uzbeks, many of whom have since developed close relations with colleagues at home. In 2017, the "Buyuk Kelajak" (Great Future) Expert Council was established, linking hundreds of Uzbek professionals from East Asia to Canada to serve as a strategic advisory network for development.
Last year, Mirziyoyev launched the Government Service Development Agency to set up a professional civil service in Uzbekistan including people with overseas experience. At a summit with more than 300 overseas Uzbeks earlier this year, presidential advisor Abdujabbor Abduvohidov argued that Uzbekistan cannot transform without the contributions of its citizens abroad.
"Who will work in Uzbekistan if not you?" he asked rhetorically. "We will create the conditions, but it will be up to you to show us what you can do."
Justice Minister Ruslanbek Davletov, an "Umid" (Hope) alumnus, urges Uzbek professionals interested in returning to focus on shaping accountability and transparency.
He sees no clash between foreign and locally trained professionals.
Atabek Nazirov, formerly a U.S.-based banker, now on his third post in the Mirziyoyev administration, said that when he returned in 2018, he committed to keep his mind "as open as possible," connect with the system, and listen.
"Uzbekistan needs us now," he told VOA when he was deputy minister of public education. He previously served as deputy minister of innovative development and currently heads the Capital Market Development Agency.
Bakhrom Mirganiev, a lawyer with extensive U.S. experience in Big 4 tax firms, banking, IT, media, and capital markets, believes Uzbekistan can equally utilize its human capital at home and abroad.
"Uzbekistan does not lack knowledge or skills. There are enough professionals and experts at home and willing to join from abroad. We just need to push projects and initiatives forward," he said.
Despite the welcoming rhetoric, unexpected challenges have awaited many professionals who came back to Uzbekistan.
Several expats, including Mirganiev, have faced difficulties getting paid: if you work in the bureaucracy, promises are rarely kept, they say. That leaves many foreign-based Uzbeks questioning the value of the sacrifices they might make, including being away from family and earning less income.
Umid Mamadaminov, another U.S.-educated and experienced professional, has dealt with such challenges while founding several ventures with American and Chinese partners in Uzbekistan.
"Important decisions at the top don't always filter down," he said, "so people like us face barriers because of the lack of responsibility and will. But we can't lose hope because of these longstanding issues."
Azizjon Rasulov, a German-educated lawyer and international business expert, returned in 2001. "If you want to work here, make sure you have a clear contract outlining the terms and conditions," he advised.
Like many, Rasulov argues Uzbekistan must find an appropriate balance between local-and foreign-educated professionals. Uzbekistan's "brains" have not actually "drained," he said, but simply traveled to get the best from the world and then bring it home to strengthen what was left behind.