Recently, in the village of Poloson, in Uzbekistan's section of the Ferghana Valley, the faithful had gathered for Namaz at the local mosque. As Friday Prayers ended the imam spoke his final words of the service, then advised his congregation to purchase lottery tickets and said an example of the prizes, a car, was parked right outside the mosque.
Yes, Uzbekistan has lottery fever these days, but it not entirely by choice, it seems.
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, Radio Ozodlik, has been receiving some irate calls from citizens, and dubious answers from officials, about the "Farovonlik" (Prosperity) lottery going on in Uzbekistan.
In April, Russia's Central Bank reported some $6.6 billion was sent from Russia to Uzbekistan in 2013. Millions of people from Uzbekistan work as migrant laborers in Russia and there are hundreds of thousands working in other countries who are also sending money back home.
There is only one bank in Uzbekistan that handles these remittances: Agrobank.
Uzbek citizens inside Uzbekistan and working in Russia have contacted Ozodlik to complain that when people in Uzbekistan go to pick up the money sent to them from abroad they are required by Agrobank to purchase at least one lottery ticket at a cost of 5,000 soms (a bit more than $2 at the official rate).
One person from the Kokand area said it had been that way for the last five months. "Every time you go to get money you are obliged to get a lottery ticket," the person said. "If you don't buy a lottery ticket you don't get money. We already have five tickets at home."
This person noted that they only go to pick up money sent to them from abroad once a month but "some migrant laborers send money to relatives every 10 days or even every week."
And the lines to collect money are apparently always very long, with one person saying they showed up in the morning and finally received their money after 4 p.m. So after all that wait, and faced with the possibility of not getting any money at all, few seem to refuse to play the lottery.
Ozodlik contacted a representative of Agrobank, who denied anyone was being forced to buy lottery tickets. "Clients purchase lottery tickets as they wish. We have no instances of forced sales, and we have this under strict control," the representative said.
One person did complain about not wishing to buy a lottery ticket and was directed to the bank's manager on the second floor. "He told us a directive came from above that for every monetary transfer one lottery ticket needed to be sold," the person said.
But of course...there's more.
Earlier, an employee at an Agrobank branch in Andijon Province said employees of the bank were also obliged to buy lottery tickets.
The head of Agrobank said from his office in Tashkent that no employees were forced to buy tickets and went so far as to say some employees not only did it "voluntarily" but on occasion even brought their families to the bank for the joyous moment when the ticket or tickets were purchased.
Some teachers in Khwarezm and Bukhara provinces have told Ozodlik they too are forced to play the lottery and have at times have even been given lottery tickets instead of their salaries.
There are 10 million tickets that need to be sold. The population of Uzbekistan is officially at just over 30 million people but anywhere between 4 to 8 million are outside the country working as migrant laborers. So on average, there's one ticket for roughly every 2.5 people.
The winning numbers are scheduled to be announced in December. The prizes include 40 new cars, which admittedly, few of those playing could likely ever afford to buy.
For those in Uzbekistan who claim they were forced to buy their tickets and doubt their chances of winning, they might find comfort by speaking with some of the millions of citizens of neighboring Tajikistan who have been forced to buy shares in the Roghun hydropower plant project during the last few years.
Oh yeah, that's right. Tajik officials said they were buying those shares voluntarily too.
-- Bruce Pannier, with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service