The authorities of Uzbekistan declared its intention to put a huge part of government-owned companies into the hands of the private sector. This policy will be implemented under a new strategy prepared by a group of local and international experts. According to this new strategy, Uzbekistan should demonstrate strong political will and be ready to change the country’s legislation.
National Economy and State-owned Companies
The large scale privatization campaign was initiated by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in December 2019 when he set out to make an inventory of all government-owned businesses. Later, in a statement to Oliy Majlis (Uzbekistani parliament), he charged the government to prepare a strategy on how to enhance a competitive environment in the country.
As a result, the government developed a list of 2965 state-owned companies with a value of $11.7 billion dollars combined. Authorities examined their business activities and made some conclusions. For example, they figured out that government-owned companies make 55% of gross domestic product (GDP). According to Bakhtiyor Khaydarov, an official of the Agency for Management of State Assets (AMSA) this indicator is much bigger than in other countries: 35% in Russia, 15% in Singapore, 8% in Vietnam and 20-25% in developed economies on average.
Despite the large impact of government-owned companies on the national economy, they account for only 47% of all taxes to the state budget and provide jobs for only 6% of all working Uzbekistani people. Many of these government-owned businesses suffer losses ($431.1 million); 34% of them do not make tax accounting and only 33% pay dividends.
As Khaydarov noted, 900 of those companies fully depend on tax and customs preferences and many of them operate noncore divisions.
Better Late Than Never
The Uzbekistan authorities do not want to waste time and are ready to implement their new strategy as soon as possible. However, a new coronavirus pandemic can affect this plan. AMSA has already prepared a series of new regulations which stipulate a large-scale privatization program. To develop this program, Uzbekistan invites all local and international experts and organizations to participate.
According to the new strategy, the government will offer the private sector 1115 companies to buy. The government will keep only 554 businesses; more than 700 enterprises will be eliminated. The current number of 1718 unitary national businesses will be reduced drastically with only 70 entities left. These will be transformed to operate as joint-stock companies or OOO (local type of Limited Liability Company).
According to Andrey Boytsun, an official representative of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the work initiated by the Uzbekistan government is very important for the country.
“Close examination and grading of all government-owned businesses are highly important. Some of them will be eliminated or reorganized. However, before the government decides what to do with the company it has to know whether it needs this company or not,” he said.
In the right place
The most important criteria in the new privatization strategy is a split between state agencies’ tasks, said Andrey Boytsun. Various ministries should focus on the development of a general policy toward business and treat all companies either public or private in a similar way.
Currently, private businesses can’t compete with government-owned companies because they have no tax or customs preferences and can’t participate in government procurements without biddings as state-owned enterprises do. For instance, in the construction and architecture sector, the state provides support for 62 of such quasi companies.
“The function of the owner should be performed by another body, not the one that is the regulator. Otherwise, it turns out like in football, when the judge plays on the side of one of the teams,” said Boytsun.
“Pharmaceutical enterprises in Uzbekistan will never be competitive unless they comply with standards and good manufacturing practices. To establish this standard is the task of the ministry and not the management and ownership of pharmaceutical companies. If we do not, Uzbekistan will only be a sales market for foreign companies,” commented Wieslaw Kaczmarek, ex-Minister of the Treasury of Poland and independent consultant in the Uzbekistani AMSA.
Explain or sell
Privatization in Uzbekistan is aimed to reduce the government’s role in the economy and should be implemented in five years.
In order to achieve this, the government will use a so-called Yellow Pages Rule, which means that the state will leave those sectors where private businesses already operate.
Another new rule for public companies is an “explain or sell.” If the government can explain why it owns the specific business it can keep it through AMSA, which manages all state assets.
“The ultimate owners of state-owned enterprises are citizens of Uzbekistan; therefore, it will be correct if AMSA reports directly to the Oliy Majlis which represents the people’s interests,” the EBRD representative emphasized.
What is the priority?
New privatization rules are also implying that state-owned companies should increase their effectiveness to work as real businesses; to introduce tools for assessment of their executive bodies' work; to create compliance services, external audit, etc.
The supervisory board should also be changed. According to Boytsun, only 3% of board members are independent and this figure should be much higher.
“When it comes to creating supervisory boards, it is important that they have professionals with a variety of competencies and skills to make the right and balanced decisions. In practice, there should be fewer civil servants. Now they’rethe majority,” said Boytsun.
Another opinion was shared by Vinoyak Nagarach, representative of the World Bank in Uzbekistan, who doesn’t argue with privatization supporters but calls for patience.
“In Uzbekistan, there are strong opportunities, administrative potential. If you look at the history of Uzbekistan, macroeconomic indicators, many enterprises were very good. We can’t say that all directors are bad managers. It is important to use what is,” said Nagarach.
International experts, as well as representatives of business and state-owned companies, insist that privatization efforts should be accompanied by changes in legislation.
According to Kaczmarek, to avoid mistakes Uzbekistan must introduce a new privatization law.
“If we are talking about the revival of privatization, the first step of this important strategy is the new version of the law on privatization. There is no way around it,” said the expert.
Rustam Kadyrov, head of the Department for Strategic Planning and Analysis of the Uzsanoat joint-stock company agrees, noting that new clear written rules might be helpful in getting money from ordinary people.
“Today, our citizens are not interested in investing in Uzbekistan. After all, we have a bad experience with this. Because you are buying land, and there is no guarantee that in five years this decision will not annul the hokim (head of the local administration),” Kadyrov gave an example.
The AMSA admits that many regulatory rules concerning privatization are outdated.
“The law on privatization was adopted in 1991. It is already outdated and does not correspond to the time. We have the 279th resolution, which consists of 400 pages, and it is also outdated. We also have a lot of regulations outdated, and experts do not own the updated database. We must update and retrain our specialists, we must update and revise all these laws and acts, and this is one of our priorities in today's work,” said Tulkin Nabiev, deputy head of the Agency.