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Qishloq Ovozi

Traditional Uzbek skullcaps on display in the country's Museum of Applied Arts. As cheap Chinese versions of these types of products become more widely available, some fear that museums will soon be the only place where traditional craft items like these can be found.

There are many advantages for Central Asia in doing business with China -- the financing of major and minor projects being chief among those reasons. But a group of merchants in Chust, in eastern Uzbekistan's Namangan Province, is learning the hard way about what Chinese economic interest can mean.

"Two years ago we sold a half million Chust knives as souvenirs," Agzamjon Usta, a master knife-maker from Chust, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik. "In the Canadian city of Montreal and the Turkish city of Izmir, Chust knives have won awards [for craftsmanship]. Now our bazaars are full of cheap Chust knives and tyubetekas made in China," Usta explained.

Usta and other merchants and craftsmen in Chust are upset that the products they worked so long to carefully produce, "in the tradition of our fathers," Usta said, are being undersold by cheap imitations being made in China.

Abbas Asad, a blogger from the city of Namangan, wrote recently about the tyubetekas, or in Uzbek "doppi," the skullcaps Uzbeks have worn for centuries and a typical souvenir for tourists (I own about 10 of them). Asad said an original Chust tyubeteka takes at least three days to sew by hand and sometimes, depending on the design it can take up to seven days.

Asad wrote that the average price of the handmade skullcap is somewhere between 50,000 to 70,000 Uzbek som [about $8 to $11] but the Chinese-made copies are selling for as low as 3,000 som.

Asad lamented that customs regulations, put in place to help defend locally made products, seem to have failed in the case of the handmade knives and skullcaps of Chust.

These prized knives and hats once were sold at souvenir shops in Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand, Usta said, and it is in Samarkand, not China, that we find the source of these cheap knock-offs.

According to Usta, a local Samarkand merchant Usta identified only as "I." decided he could increase his profits by finding someone else to produce copies of the knives and hats. This merchant found such a place in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Usta said "I." took examples of the Chust knives and skullcaps to a factory in Xinjiang where a local entrepreneur agreed to make similar products at a much lower price.

The merchants and craftsmen in Chust seem resigned to the fact there is not much they can do to stop these imitation products from being sold in Uzbekistan. Namangan blogger Asad wrote, "If our customs policies are not changed, soon we will only find the original designs of Chust tyubetekas in museums."

This article is based on reporting by RFE/RL's Uzebek Service
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev gestures to the crowd during the opening ceremony of the Hazrat Sultan mosque in Astana in July 2012.

Many young people enter universities with the hope that one day their education will help them stand out from the crowd. But in Kazakhstan, it seems you have to stand in the crowd first.

Some university students in Kazakhstan complain they are being forced by university staff to attend events sponsored by officials.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, has been reporting about the so-called "massovka," the people who are ordered to attend events where local or national politicians will be present. The word derives from a Russian term referring to movie extras and crowd scenes.

Marlen (a pseudonym) is a student from the Al-Farabi University in Almaty. "We don't have a choice," he said. "They [university officials] tell us to go and we are obligated to go."

Marlen said he had spent a good deal of his "free" time -- up to six hours in a television studio or 12 hours at a stadium -- waiting for the president to speak or watch bicycle races.

"If you don't go, you get put on the blacklist, they could take away your room at the dormitory, or maybe next year you won't get a dorm room. Sometimes we're threatened with receiving bad grades," Marlen told Azattyq.

Another student, who wished to remain anonymous, from Abai University, also in Almaty, said university officials often bus students to conferences and forums to be part of the audience.

"We go to events at the mayor's office, scientific conferences, events organized by the Writers' Union, jubilees for poets and writers. The leadership at the university demands we take part," the student said. "If we don't go, they will be very picky at exam time," he added.

A student at the Eurasian National University in Astana who gave her name as Balnurzhan said, "We hold small flags and applaud at all the events where the president, Astana, or ministers are present.'

Balnurzhan explained, "If students ignore these events, they could mark you as having missed classes," and such students will not graduate.

Azattyq spoke with Gul Bayandina, a spokeswoman at Kazakhstan's National University, who admitted the university did encourage students to attend political and sporting events sponsored by the authorities, "but students attend of their own volition, we do not force anyone [to go]."

Arman Ukeev, a representative of the Kazakh National Pedagogical University, said the university did receive requests from the local administration to have "30 people at some event, or maybe 50," but he added, "We try not to send students."

The Almaty mayor's office said accusations students were forced to attend such events were "groundless."

Azattyq contacted Fatima Abzapieva, a professor with some 30 years of experience, who said the habit of ordering students to attend public events, political or sports, "is left over from Soviet times." She said organizations such as the young pioneers, the Komsomoltsy, or later Communist Party were examples of groups that demanded their members attend certain public functions so that pictures or footage of the events would show large crowds.

"In the directives concrete numbers of students, needed for events were indicated," she said.

A university professor in Almaty, Askar Shamgaliev, said he did not see any harm in coaxing students to attend events sponsored by the authorities. "Participation in such events develops the perceptions and thinking of students, he said.

Audio recordings of Azattyq's conversations, in Kazakh, with some of these people are available here.

RFE/RL's Ruslan Medelbek contributed to this report

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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