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How Sweet Life Isn't In Uzbekistan

Uzbeks line up to buy sugar in the Jizzakh region earlier this month. Prices are rising, and tensions along with them.
Uzbeks line up to buy sugar in the Jizzakh region earlier this month. Prices are rising, and tensions along with them.

Going to buy sugar in Uzbekistan? Do you have enough money? The price has gone up. Way up.

Do you have anything else to do today? Standing in line for sugar can take many hours.

Do you have your documents? Can't buy sugar without proper ID.

For those in Uzbekistan with a sweet tooth, these are hard times. It seems there is a sugar deficit in Uzbekistan and it's unclear whether it is natural or artificial.

People in Uzbekistan are accustomed to sugar prices rising in the summer but previous years have never been like the last few months.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Radio Ozodlik, has been tracking the price of sugar as it has gone up and lines to purchase this basic product have grown longer.

The price of sugar is fixed by the government and should sell for no more than 2,800 soms per kilogram, a little more than $1, which it was as of early May this year. By mid-July the price had jumped to more than 6,000 soms in some areas.

And that's when it's available.

In A Jam

Uzbeks expect the price of sugar to rise at this time of year because the jam-and-preserves' season is about to begin. Every year, when the fruit ripens on the trees and in the fields of Uzbekistan it heralds the start of jam making and storing fruit in jars as part of the coming winter's supply of provisions.

The people who control Uzbekistan's sugar industry (and we'll get to them in a moment) know this and implement the annual price rise knowing they have a seller's market.

This year, however, there is also a shortage of sugar (and we'll get to that also in a moment) and because of that a hoarding mentality has broken out in the country.

The long lines to buy sugar, in which people wait six hours or more, are a consequence of this, because there also now appears to be a limit on how much sugar can be purchased at each visit: 1 kilogram.

Ozodlik spoke with people who said some people selling sugar were breaking up the kilograms into smaller quantities of hundreds of grams, in little baggies.

Does this sound like another, illegal business?

In the first half of July, tax police raided markets and bazaars and uncovered 38 places engaged in illegal sales of the substance and seized 66.8 tons of "illicit" sugar. A person identified only as "A. Botirov" was caught in possession of 2.2 tons of sugar, which he was selling "without any documents" at a price of 5,500 soms per kilogram.

Fights have broken out at sugar lines across the country and some merchants trying to sell sugar at bazaars, without some form of security force or the police nearby, have been mobbed by desperate glucose-craving crowds.

The website reported that in a district of Tashkent local leaders have organized sales of sugar outside apartment complexes. And before any transactions are made, sellers are requiring customers to show their documents proving they live in the area.

The problem is so serious and so widespread that state media has been forced to report about it.

And what state media says is that the scapegoat, I mean responsible party, is the Khorezm-Shakar (Khorezm-Sugar) company, the country's biggest supplier of sugar. The shortage is the fault of Khorezm-Shakar because their factory produced only 250,000 tons of sugar this year, 100,000 tons less than last year.

An unofficial version of the sugar deficit finds the cause of the shortage is due to Bahodir Karimjonov, alias Baho-Shakarchi, leaving the country. In recent years Karimjonov held a virtual monopoly over Uzbekistan's sugar industry, functioning as the sole licensed importer and distributor.

Karimjonov was also rumored to have been a close business associate of recently fallen presidential first daughter Gulnara Karimova, which probably explains why Baho-Shakarchi recently fled Uzbekistan.

This version of Uzbekistan's sugar deficit proposes that without one single and obvious sugar baron in the country there are now several individuals/groups competing to take over Karimjonov's former empire. This has caused a break in the supply chain, causing the current sugar situation.

And of course, Uzbek authorities and others ascribe the problem to simple greed by unscrupulous individuals who are withholding their sugar supply to drive up the price.

Whatever the cause, shortages of basic goods have evolved into big social problems in the Central Asian states in the past and Uzbekistan, despite the "iron-fist" reputation of its leader, President Islam Karimov, has been no exception.

-- Bruce Pannier, with contributions from Khurmat Babajonov of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service

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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

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


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