TASHKENT -- Hit by regular power cuts and with popular sites like Twitter and TikTok blocked, Uzbekistan hardly seems a likely candidate for a tech boom.
But with Russia's invasion of Ukraine driving an exodus of information technology (IT) specialists to former parts of the Soviet Union, authorities in Uzbekistan are hoping to speed up plans to modernise an economy best known for its vast production of cotton.
It took only one day after Russia's February 24 invasion of Ukraine for Uzbekistan to launch a one-stop government relocation programme for IT specialists and companies.
Less than two weeks later, the Uzbek government on March 10 launched a website -- itvisa.uz -- for the programme.
Offering visas, housing and child care support to individuals, and registration assistance and tax exemptions to companies, the programme already has attracted 2,000 foreign IT specialists, the government said, according to an AFP report last week.
Starting April 1, Uzbekistan also began offering a special three-year IT visa for investors, founders and specialists in the field, as well as their families.
Anastasia Markova, a Russian citizen who recently became a public relations manager at Uzbekistan's state-run IT Park in Tashkent, is one of the recent arrivals.
Markova, 22, had been due to be married in Russia in April but left Moscow with her fiancé -- an employee of a company registered at the park -- for Tashkent, and the two are now seeking permanent residence.
Markova said she feels comfortable in the city, where Russian is still widely spoken three decades after Uzbekistan gained independence during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"The country accepted us as one of their own. The people are so friendly and hospitable," she said.
Thousands in IT leave Russia
Markova was more keen to speak about her new home than about the country she left behind, saying only that her decision to leave Russia had been "rushed, as it was for many people" and due to "a number of social and economic factors".
Several other Russian citizens contacted by AFP after moving to Uzbekistan and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan refused to talk, saying they feared the consequences of potentially being seen as critical of Russia.
The IT Park in Tashkent is home to 550 companies and central to the government's plans to increase annual Uzbek IT exports to more than $1 billion by 2028, a 25-fold rise from last year's figure.
The park's motto, "START local and GO Global", is emblazoned on a wood panel facade at the entrance. Inside, young support staff in casual attire and headsets work at desks.
The IT Park is already seeing benefits from the relocation programme dubbed TashRush -- "a name that seemed most suited to the phenomenon we are witnessing", park deputy director Bakhodir Ayupov said.
The Russian Association of Electronic Communications, a lobby group, said on March 22 that 50,000 to 70,000 specialists had left Russia and up to 100,000 more may follow them out the door in April.
For the moment, Uzbekistan is a less popular destination for departing Russian IT workers than are Georgia, Turkey and Armenia.
Uzbekistan has lagged behind other ex-Soviet nations in developing the sector. The country has lately battled winter energy shortages, while power cuts are not uncommon, even in Tashkent.
But internet speed has "improved greatly" in Uzbekistan, driving a doubling of IT exports last year in comparison with 2020, Ayupov said.
In an apparent nod to business, Uzbek authorities last month lifted a long-term block on the Skype communications platform.
Twitter, TikTok and Russia's most popular social network, VKontakte, remain blocked.
'Flywheel of repression'
Despite these difficulties, some of the Russians who left said they would rather stick it out in Uzbekistan than return home.
Olga, a 42-year-old who moved to Samarkand with her husband immediately after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, said she had fallen in love with the former Silk Road citadel and hoped her experience as a content curator for digital museums would help her find work.
"To begin with, we thought we would be here for a few days, but we decided to stay longer," said Olga, who declined to publish her surname. "People who were complete strangers have been so good to us."
Olga and her husband have no plans to return to Russia, where "the flywheel of repression is spinning and may be spinning for a long time to come", she said.
Ivan Naumov, 22, a freelance graphic designer, also plans to remain in the country for as long as feasible.
Fearing border closures and potential conscription, Naumov decided to leave Russia the day after the start of the invasion.
Tickets to Samarkand were reasonably priced, and Naumov figured he could stay there for a few days before heading elsewhere. But then he had problems withdrawing money from his Russian bank accounts and stayed longer than expected.
Naumov has been impressed by the city, which he said is beautiful and relatively inexpensive.
Uzbeks have been willing to help him whenever he needed assistance, he added.
"I don't have anyone here, except I met a lot of Russians who also left Russia," Naumov told Caravanserai.
"It's hard to say if I'll go back to Russia. Unfortunately, the situation there is only getting worse."
Local Uzbek IT specialists also have been accepting of the newcomers.
Bakhadyr, a programmer from Tashkent who provided only his first name, said his Uzbek colleagues do not need to fear competition from the influx of foreign IT specialists.
"Our IT market is only in the development stage," he told Caravanserai. "There is a lot of demand here for specialists in the field. I think there will be enough jobs to go around."
Demand for app developers and big data analysts is higher than ever, he added.
"As for cybersecurity projects, large Uzbek customers, such as banks, used the services of specialists from Russia even before. It's just that now those specialists are here," Bakhadyr said.