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Deputy Minister Atabek Nazirov: Uzbekistan needs us now


Atabek Nazirov: Uzbekistan needs us now
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Atabek Nazirov is the first Uzbek American joining the Mirziyoyev administration in Tashkent. Why and how? What does change mean for this 43 year old banker? And what is his advice to those who would like to follow him? VOA's Navbahor Imamova talks to Nazirov about goals and challenges.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Hello, I'm Navbahor Imamova reporting for you from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. This is our first, historic I should say, interview from the Uzbek capital, and I have decided to do that interview with someone who has come from the United States a few months ago to be the deputy minister for innovation and development. But now he's holding a new position. Let's just say that he got promoted pretty rapidly within the system. Atabek Nazirov, currently the Deputy Minister for Public Education. How did you end up here really? We've known each other since 2005.

I always thought of doing public service... People like yourself, like myself, with international qualifications and experience are in very high demand.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Very long.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And 13 years ago, when we met at a coffee shop in Washington, it was a different world. We talked about our dreams...

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Future.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yes, and our goals for Uzbekistan, but neither of us obviously imagined this. That I as a VOA journalist would be sitting here, freely doing this interview with a high level Uzbek official, and it's you.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Not so high, but a government official, now part of Ministry of Public Education. And I'm very excited. As you said, it's been a very long road. I wasn't really planning. I always thought of doing public service in the United States or elsewhere, but Uzbekistan... we're here in high demand here. People like yourself, like myself, with international qualifications and experience are in very high demand, particularly those who have left the country and have the understanding of our culture and the way of living. So I'm pleased to be back and I'm very happy to see you doing this interview.

Deputy Minister Atabek Nazirov with VOA's Navbahor Imamova, July 2018, Tashkent
Deputy Minister Atabek Nazirov with VOA's Navbahor Imamova, July 2018, Tashkent

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You had a good job. You had the best of both worlds. You were already working with the Uzbek government as a representative of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. You could have continued that path. You already had an impact on the processes here in Uzbekistan, but you chose to get in.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: I think, Navbahor, this was a very philosophical decision for me. I have done my banking and financing work for close to 20 years, and the question was not about what I could have learned, but where I could make an impact, and with the opportunity of doing public service in Uzbekistan... I could not have refused this offer. I'll tell you, being able to impact lives, improving people's lives on such a massive scale is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It's not a matter of what kind of salary you make, what kind of lifestyle you can manage. It's about the impact you can make in this world, on people, doing public service.

I said, "Look, I'm interested. I would like to come back and make a contribution."

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Well, it's one thing to want to get in, and you're in, but how did that happen? How did you get in?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: I think it was not a complicated process. The president of Uzbekistan, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to New York last year to meet with with UN General Assembly, and he met with some of the countrymen then, and he made it public that he would like to see some of us to come back and join the government and maybe even do other things. So it was a clear message. When I was working at EBRD, working closely with Uzbek government, reengaging the bank in Uzbekistan, I was meeting various people including the Ambassador of Uzbekistan in London and other people, for example in the Senate, Senator Safoyev, for example, and we started discussing this.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You started talking about wanting to get back to Uzbekistan.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Yes, I said, "Look, I'm interested. I would like to come back and make a contribution." So, the process started, discussions were initiated, various interviews and the offer was made. So here I am, rolled my sleeves and doing my part.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You had zero government experience before this. I know you've always wanted to do public service but you hadn't really had any political experience, right? So, this is a completely new chapter for you. You're basically throwing yourself into the fire.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: I think so, it's throwing into a fire... We develop personally, and for me it is also a personal development, learning how-

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Challenging yourself.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Challenging myself with new tasks, and they're enormous. It's like you go into a territory and you had no prior proper training. But the whole point is that the government here, the leadership here is giving you the opportunity and giving you a chance...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And it has convinced you that it needs you.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Yes, people like myself, like you, people like me.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister of Public Education, Uzbekistan
Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister of Public Education, Uzbekistan

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: When the announcement came out and when the world found out that Atabek Nazirov is now a part of this very ambitious reform agenda, a very ambitious government in Uzbekistan, a lot of us were asking questions like, how did they convince him? What kind of offer did he get? What was the offer from Tashkent?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: It was an offer I could not refuse, Navbahor, the title and the responsibility given with that, the expectations from someone like me and the tasks they're giving me to facilitate and be part of the reform, I think, it's huge. You don't get offers like that every day.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You were hired as a Deputy Minister for Innovation and Development, and within a few months you are at a different position.

It was an offer I could not refuse, Navbahor, the title and the responsibility given with that, the expectations from someone like me and the tasks they're giving me to facilitate and be part of the reform, I think, it's huge. You don't get offers like that every day.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Yes.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How did that happen? Was that your choice or were you moved?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: It was an offer by the leadership again. Our team at the Ministry for Innovation and Development was asked to come and take a lead at the Ministry of Public Education, because it's a ministry that is responsible for such a huge sector. We have 5 million students in public education. We have 500,000 teachers. We have 10,000 schools, and the system was not given proper attention over the last 25 years.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: This is the system that has suffered the most.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Exactly, and the leadership is acknowledging that. So, because we proved ourselves as a team at the Ministry of Innovation, we were given a chance to take leadership here, and Minister Sherzod Shermatov, who was Deputy Minister at the Ministry of Innovation was asked to lead this ministry and bring his team along, and I joined. And I tell you with respect, with regards to impact that we make here and the problems that we need to solve here, they're massive, they're huge. As I mentioned, the number of schools, number of teachers that are impacted and the reforms that we need to make so that we give the right resources, financial, human capital, administrative, to facilitate public education. It's important, it's the future of the country, and if we keep [putting this on hold], the consequences could be very heavy.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How big is the ministry?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: The ministry itself here, with about 100 people at the moment at the head of office, but we have more in the regions and cities. But as I said, altogether the ministry employs about half a million people.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You just had a big meeting with President Mirziyoyev, and obviously you have met him before, right?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Yes.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How often do you see him?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Well, you don't see president too often because he has obviously a very busy schedule. He is managing the whole country, but when we're given an opportunity to see him, we do disclose all of our findings and issues. So this was the first time we met him to give him a summary and feedback on the problems, and we identified the solutions we would recommend to improve these problems. So it was a very candid discussion, very honest discussion and I'm so impressed with President Mirziyoyev. I'm so impressed with his ability to stay on top of things, his ability to listen. He gave a chance to each one of us to openly give our feedback and our proposals on what we could do at the Ministry of Public Education to improve the conditions of our teachers, to improve the conditions for our students, and what plan we have for the future. I think the country is so lucky to have a president like that and I'm very lucky to be part of his government.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Do you feel like you're treated differently because you're representing so many different things? You're seen as a global person with Western experience, with a private sector experience, and you're the first Uzbek American joining the system How did they receive you?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Well, Navbahor, I cannot single out and say, look that was the approach. It depends on people but I don't think I'm treated differently. I'm treated the same way except that there are a lot of expectations from me. A lot of expectations on the experience I can bring, and I'm given that chance. Whatever idea I have, whatever proposal I put on the table, we debate, we discuss, so that's impressive, and obviously as I said, there are the expectations to not only to do something on my own, but also to engage the contacts I have, friends I have, to come and make contributions. These are huge tasks. I think one of my probably biggest assets is the ability to negotiate and talk with financial institutions, with donors, use my financial management skills... I'm given a green light to facilitate as much of that as possible.

If there is someone out there who really is thinking seriously that he can make a contribution to the reform agenda, and join the team, they'll be very welcome. And I'll provide guidance. I'll provide support, including our ministry and what we can do. But people should be ready to make sacrifices, including personal sacrifices.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You have a family, and they're based in the West. You have children, your wife, I've met her before, and I'm sure it has been difficult for them. You have sacrificed a lot financially...

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: We can make financial sacrifices but making a family sacrifice has been a bit bigger, and I'm thankful to having such a great support of my family, my wife, you know her well, my three children, they're all supportive. We have discussed this in detail, how we're going to handle this. For the summer, my wife has joined me with my little son, and two of my children are on their way.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: They are in college, right?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: They're in college, my two boys are in college, and I've made my commitment, I will maintain my commitment, and I will see after that. As I said, I am not binded here, but I like to make as much as possible, I like to share as much possible of experience I have. As I said, my second probably priority is to send the message to folks like myself to say look, the chance is unique, you don't need to wait on the sidelines. If there is someone out there who really is thinking seriously that he can make a contribution to the reform agenda, and join the team, they'll be very welcome. And I'll provide guidance. I'll provide support, including our ministry and what we can do. But people should be ready to make sacrifices, including personal sacrifices.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And can it be something short-term?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Absolutely, absolutely short-term, and as I said, we have project work, tasks, they could last one month, they could last some of them six months, and we would look forward to bringing people to help us with that too.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And as someone who is coming in as an outsider, who's now slowly learning the system, trying to make a difference, and at the same time trying to find that golden mean to be effective within the system, what would be your advice to those who are saying, "Is it worth to make that sacrifice? You know, I have a nice job at the World Bank, I have a nice job at some banks ...People with similar experiences like yours. And you just said that if you want it, come. It's a calling, right? This is the moment... But then there are fears. People don't want to take risks. People don't know enough about the Uzbek government.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Navbahor, I had that fear.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: People tried to convince not to do it?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Even when I was expecting that there might be an offer coming up, I still had my fear saying, what am I getting myself into? Will I be able to survive? Will my family's support? It was very difficult, I'll tell you personally, but then something happened. There was a click in my head. I said, look, I made a decision, the worst thing might happen, I do my term and I can return. We always change jobs.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I have heard many Uzbek Americans like you, both men and women, say that, "I'm going to wait a bit more. I'm going to wait a bit more and see where the system goes. Let's see what this system is capable off for now and then I'll think about joining the government or going back to Uzbekistan and make my own difference." How long is it okay to wait in your view and see?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Well, there are risks; you could wait, I'm not saying it's for everybody, Navbahor, it's not for everybody but what you get now, is an opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself, as I said before. You have an opportunity to contribute. As we talked earlier, teams are being built at the moment.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: This is a crucial time.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: This is the time. This is the time. As I said, it's not for everybody, but the scope is so large in terms of what each of us could do here and all we need to do is say, I want to take that little risk. The purpose of that should be bigger than yourself. As I said, here we have a chance to influence, to foster, to make recommendations, policy level recommendations, reforms, there are so many aspects, judicial reform, investment climate reforms, even public service reform. There's so much and if someone out there who is thinking look, I'm willing to do something small, the door's open, and this is the message I will send, everybody's welcome.

We have a lot of debates... I might have one view on solving a problem, someone else has a different view, and the amazing thing here, is that we have a chance to debate and the best idea wins. And the similar thing is happening across across various departments and ministries. You take initiative, you go with it, if you can convince people, your idea wins.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You are a part of the group of reforming group of the public education system, which means that you basically have to interact and work with other sectors and ministries. So the big question is: How strong is this reform team? We know that this is an ambitious reform agenda, but is the government in sync in terms of its goals, in terms of the steps forward? Do you feel like you're a part of this?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: The government is very, very committed. The president is super committed, as I mentioned earlier, we're so lucky to have someone like President Mirziyoyev to lead this country. It's a crucial moment. We have the support of the very top level, and every government member under him is as committed. The second question obviously, each reform might have different options, right? There is not a single solution to any problem. So, what we have a chance here to do now, is to debate. Even within the ministry, oftentimes within ourselves, we have a lot of debates. I might have one view on solving a problem, someone else has a different view, and the amazing thing here, is that we have a chance to debate and the best idea wins. And the similar thing is happening across across various departments and ministries. You take initiative, you go with it, if you can convince people, your idea wins.

Deputy Minister Atabek Nazirov with VOA's Navbahor Imamova, July 2018, Tashkent
Deputy Minister Atabek Nazirov with VOA's Navbahor Imamova, July 2018, Tashkent

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: There are skeptics saying, yeah, fine, the Uzbek government has a very strong will to make changes, but that it not enough. You need to have a very strong roadmap. You need to have a strong action plan. Is there an action plan so far in terms of reforming the public education?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: We're working on the concept at the moment, for the last three weeks we've been here... We made the best effort to identify all the key problems, and again, the resources are tight. The biggest problem is with the human capital. So, whatever resource we have, we've managed to put that together, we drafted a couple of proposals for President Mirziyoyev on reforms. We have a draft of our roadmap that we developed. We also proposed a concept of the strategy development for public education. There was a lot of work done already prior, so we need to ensure we can consolidate all that together, and over the course of the next week or two you will hear public disclosure of those documents and we'll be working on the 10 year concept strategy to reform the public education sector and its components. We've been reviewing the entire modules. How do we need to teach? What do we want to teach? How do we finance that? Where do we get the support? It's a very complex process.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How can the international community help? There are some assistance groups who are eager to get in to Uzbekistan.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Yes, we're engaged with them, Navbahor. Yesterday I had a meeting with World Bank representatives. We have another meeting this afternoon with a delegation of the World Bank, who is providing institutional support to help us with financial management systems. So that's being discussed at the moment. We're working with UNICEF, with UNESCO, we're working with the UNDP.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: How about with various governments?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: We have discussions with governments. I'm hopefully visiting South Korea with our team in two weeks time and meet with officials there to discuss and review their experience, and with the U.S. government, we initiated discussions on what we can do to reengage with the FLEX program. We're even discussing reengaging Peace Corps. So, we've been active, Navbahor, very active.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Renewing exchange programs?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Exactly.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So, you're open to work with anyone?

I'm an average banker who came into the government, but despite that, you are taken very seriously by everybody in the country and you're given every chance and every opportunity to share your knowledge and make your recommendations. So, the message I would send to someone like myself, willing to come back, look, drop all your expectations, don't expect anything, just be ready to come and join the reform programs. Join the government if you're offered, if not, there are other things to do, in the private sector, NGOs, anything, it's fun to be here. It's the best time to be here.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: We work carefully with everybody who is willing to support and really give us the right structural recommendations, and we will then select best ideas. What we're doing now, we're reviewing the world experience; in Finland, in Switzerland, in UK, even Russia. The Russian influence is huge and demand for, for example, the Russian public teaching is very huge, we want to support that too. So we're open to all best ideas, and as I said, the biggest problem we have, is the lack of human capital and time.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: The development of those things are essentially dependent on your work.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: Exactly.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Your work, as someone whose job is to improve the public education sector in this country.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: I hope.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What has been the biggest lesson so far that you have learned here in Uzbekistan?

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: The biggest lesson... I had no idea how much I would be involved throughout the entire government, in policy-making and how open the people I'm working with would be, receptive to ideas that you share, and you're really taken seriously here. And again, I'm nobody, Navbahor. I have experience but I'm not someone who has that status. I'm an average banker who came into the government, but despite that, you are taken very seriously by everybody in the country and you're given every chance and every opportunity to share your knowledge and make your recommendations. So, the message I would send to someone like myself, willing to come back, look, drop all your expectations, don't expect anything, just be ready to come and join the reform programs. Join the government if you're offered, if not, there are other things to do, in the private sector, NGOs, anything, it's fun to be here. It's the best time to be here.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And you don't need political connections.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: You don't need political connections. It's always good to have political connections, but it's always up here (pointing to his head).

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Well, thank you so much for your time.

Atabek Nazirov, Deputy Minister: My pleasure, thank you for coming.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Welcome.

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    Navbahor Imamova

    Navbahor Imamova "Amerika Manzaralari" turkumidagi ilk teledasturlar muallifi. TV, radio va onlayn diktor, prodyuser, muxbir va muharrir. "Amerika Ovozi"da 2002-yildan beri ishlaydi. Jurnalistik faoliyatini 1996-yilda O'zbekiston radiosining "Xalqaro hayot" redaksiyasida boshlagan. Jahon Tillar Universiteti Xalqaro jurnalistika fakultetida dars bergan. Ommaviy axborot vositalari bo'yicha bakalavrlikni Hindistonning Maysur Universitetidan (University of Mysore), magistrlikni esa AQShning Bol Davlat Universitetidan (Ball State University) olgan. Shuningdek, Garvard Universitetidan (Harvard University) davlat boshqaruvi va liderlik bo'yicha magistrlik diplomiga ega. Toshkent viloyati Bo'stonliq tumani Qo'shqo'rg'on qishlog'ida ziyoli oilasida ulg'aygan.

    Navbahor Imamova is a prominent Uzbek journalist at the Voice of America and a leading Washington-based authority on geopolitics and national development in Central Asia. As anchor, reporter, multimedia editor and producer, she has covered Central Asia and the U.S. for over 15 years on TV, radio and online. During 2016-2017, she was a prestigious Edward S. Mason Fellow in public policy and management, while earning her Mid-Career Masters in Public Administration at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Imamova played a pivotal role in the launch of Uzbek television programming at VOA in 2003, and has since presented nearly 800 editions of the flagship weekly show, “Amerika Manzaralari,” which covers American foreign policy focusing on Washington’s relations with Central Asia, as well as life and politics in the U.S. She is frequently asked to speak on regional issues in Central Asia, as well as Uzbek politics and society, for policy, academic, and popular audiences, including the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, Princeton University, Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, Georgetown University, George Washington University, Michigan State University, the University of Wisconsin, Northeastern University, and her alma mater Harvard University. Her essays on the region have been published in journals and edited volumes, including Central Eurasian Studies Review and Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization.

    She began her career at the Uzbek state broadcaster. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and mass communication from Maharaja’s College at the University of Mysore, India and a Master of Arts in journalism from Ball State University.

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