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Uzbekistan: New Laws Ban Everything From Motorcycles To Movies

People in Uzbekistan are finding their lives governed by increasingly bizarre new laws. Residents of the capital Tashkent are now banned from riding motorcycles. Moviegoers throughout the country will not be able to see "The Turkish Gambit," a new historical thriller from Russia. And one of the government's latest moves has been to impose a uniform for schoolteachers.

Prague, 13 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Uzbek Education Ministry justified the introduction of uniforms as a way to prevent the nation's schoolteachers from wearing what it called "unsuitable" clothes.

From 1 April, teachers have worn the mandatory outfit selected by their school management. Some schools have introduced simple single-color dresses. Others have chosen white tops and black skirts, or trousers for the men.

“As teachers, we never stopped wearing a kind of uniform," said one teacher from the southern town of Gulistan. "We always met certain standards. People could easily tell if you were a teacher. Maybe there were three or four teachers in some village who were seen in dresses with a bright pattern. But that doesn’t mean all the teachers in the country have to wear a uniform. In fact, teachers usually dress more modestly than anyone else. And now we're being forced to wear a uniform."

The Education Ministry's decree says that in addition to looking modest, teachers must refrain from wearing makeup and jewelry.

Such luxuries are already uncommon for most teachers, whose average monthly salary is just $30, and often goes unpaid for months. In fact, many teachers say they can't even afford the new uniforms -- which they have to pay for themselves.

“The uniform costs 15-20,000 thousand sums ($15-$20)," said one teacher. "We spend half of our salary on this. It would be better to give us money for the uniforms."

But the ministry is not offering to reimburse teachers for the price of the new uniforms. Many Uzbek teachers have protested the decree, with some even choosing to leave their jobs.

Many other Uzbeks -- like independent journalist Sharof Ubaydullaev -- are angry as well.

“Putting uniforms on all the teachers is absolutely incomprehensible," Ubaydullaev said. "I can’t understand who initiated this and why. This change is absolutely groundless nowadays. What is important is not to introduce uniforms for teachers, but to provide for them financially."

Sergei Yezhkov, a Tashkent-based independent journalist, has written articles about the uniform issue for a number of Internet publications. He claimed the new decree is just another way for unscrupulous school managers to make a profit.

"This is a new trend these days. School directors make an agreement with an atelier to make the new uniforms," Yezhkov said. "They tell the teachers the uniform will cost 80,000 sums -- the equivalent of $80. I think the real prices is closer to 20,000 [sums]. So some people will be making a new profit of 60,000 [sums per uniform]."

Uzbekistan has long prohibited people from entering airports unless they are actual passengers. And more recently, the government has placed a ban on riding motorcycles in the capital.

Police and security officials have reasoned such bans will help improve security. But Yezhkov said that many of the decisions are simply the result of caprice and laziness on the part of some government officials.

“I wouldn’t say it's the government’s general policy. It is rather the whims of some officials and, secondly, it is an unwillingness to work," Yezhkov said. "It is merely police officers who are too lazy to check every person entering the [airport] building. It is much more simple just to ban them. They banned motorcycles, saying terrorists had planned an attack involving the use of motorcycles. They should look for the people [who were planning these attacks] instead of banning an entire form of transportation."

Such bans are also problematic because they can lead to bribery and corruption.

One case in point is the recent rise in video piracy.

Uzbeks had eagerly awaited the arrival of "The Turkish Gambit," a new Russian film that has proved a popular hit in many post-Soviet republics and has been heavily advertised on television and radio.

Uzbek interest in the film was especially high because its director, Janik Fayziev, is a native of Tashkent and the son of a popular Uzbek actress, Oydin Norbaeva.

But "The Turkish Gambit" is the second Russian production to be banned in Uzbekistan in the past several months. Last autumn, Uzbek authorities blocked the broadcast of the Russian soap opera "Twins."

Local media reported that government officials had forced the head of Uzbekistan's state-controlled television to reject the program, saying it was untruthful. Authorities may have been upset by two Uzbek characters who appeared on the show -- a corrupt police official and a woman who is unfaithful to her husband.

Yezhkov said that officials are desperate to hide any form of entertainment that suggests life in Uzbekistan is less than perfect.

“Ever since we acquired independence, Uzbekistan’s [authorities] have tried to pretend that we are holier than the pope of Rome," Yezhkov said. "They want to think there is nothing vicious in Uzbekistan, as was shown on “Twins.” There are no corrupt police or government officials. Everyone is honest, good, sinless, and innocent. The ban was the most primitive way to hide the truth."

Unlike "Twins," however, "The Turkish Gambit" is a historical portrayal of the 19th-century Russo-Turkish war, and has nothing to do with Uzbekistan.

In this case, the ban may have more to do with money. Uzbek media have reported that a limited number of Uzbek theaters have been given exclusive rights to show the movie, which has earned millions of dollars in ticket sales in Russia.

Adding fuel to the speculation is the fact that one of the theaters, Premier Hall Basha, is the property of a company that is allegedly controlled by Gulnara Karimova, the daughter of Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

(RFE/RL correspondents in Uzbekistan contributed to this report.)

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