Twelve years after independence, people face daily battle to survive
Right in the heart of the Uzbek capital of Tashkent, on the edge of the Amir Temur Public Garden, an old woman stands beside a ramshackle set of scales. She was there in the apparently vain hope that passers-by would be tempted to discover what their weight was, fully clothed and wrapped against the cold winds and rain that have sent the temperatures plummeting towards the freezing point. She was charging just 50 cym, or HK$1.50.
Cigarette sellers stand alongside sunflower seed hawkers in the public garden, which is as central to the Uzbekistan capital as Statue Square is to Hong Kong. Maids will offer to undercut their own hotel and return cleaned laundry in half the time.
Twelve years after gaining independence and emerging from behind the iron curtain, the ordinary people of this former Soviet Republic are embracing the free market in unconventional ways. But this scramble does not have the feel of greed or avarice; it is more an everyday battle for survival. More worrying is the claim that many of these street hawkers are far from being the underbelly of this society.
'This is new here and many of these people are old teachers who earn so little money in the schools that they have to do these things,' said Jahongir Turahanov, senior researcher at the Institute for the Study of Civil Society, a non-governmental organisation. 'These are people who already have jobs - most have degrees.'
Superficially, Tashkent has a similar feel to Baghdad under Saddam Hussein. Both cities have an air of relative modernity, remnants from periods of greater investment, but a closer look unveils buildings that are showing signs of decay from a lack of maintenance.
In the case of Tashkent, a rich mix of Eastern European, Turkic and Islamic influences, some of which date back to its place on the Silk Road, the metro system bears the marbled magnificence of the Soviet era, but the trains, clean as they may be, are starting to show their age. Buses, trolley cars and trams date back to the early 1980s or late 1970s.
This deterioration is heightened by sporadic new monoliths that sparkle in the autumn sun. 'Those are the banks,' laughed one Uzbek. 'The banks are the only ones with any money. The banks have all the money!'
'There's too big a gap between the rich and the poor here,' insisted Marina Yakshigulova, a reporter for the evening newspaper Vecherniy Tashkent. ' Many people are stuck in the mentality of the Soviet era. If the government had solved this when we first gained independence maybe it would be better now. We were a closed country. If we had opened our financial borders earlier maybe we would not have these problems.'
While it seems few Uzbeks pine for a return to Russian rule, which began after a bloody war in the 1870s, few Uzbeks will claim they are better off since they and a swarm of other Central Asian republics emerged from behind the iron curtain.
'Now we have milk, bread, many things. Under the Soviet Union we didn't have so many things,' Mr Turahanov recalled. 'But there aren't many luxuries. My house consists of two rooms. I pay for hot and cold water, electricity and gas and it costs 35,000 Cym. It's very much and I want to buy food, shoes, to go to the park or to the football stadium.'
Uzbekistan has been slow to attract overseas investment, although one of the largest employers in the capital, Sovplastital, is a joint venture between the former state plastics industry and Italian partners.
Foreign brand names are rare, except for the South Korean giants Daewoo, Samsung and LG, all of whom have production facilities here. While the Ilyushin aircraft factory still functions, producing the 104 airliner as well as military aircraft, gold and cotton remain the country's main exports.
The problem, according to Mr Turahanov, is that the government, in its inexperience of capitalism has done nothing to encourage the smaller enterprises.
'The government is from the USSR system and think like the USSR. If we can change them it would be good. There are parliamentary elections in October next year. I'm sure it will change. We want to change. Most people want change,' he said.