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The President Wants Big(gish), Not-So-Fat Uzbek Weddings

A wedding can easily cost up to $20,000 in Uzbekistan, where people earn an average of between $100-$300 a month.
A wedding can easily cost up to $20,000 in Uzbekistan, where people earn an average of between $100-$300 a month.

Hundreds of guests, tables of endless food, live bands, and expensive cars.

As elsewhere in Central Asia, people in Uzbekistan like their weddings big, and splurge on such celebrations even if it breaks the family bank.

But not everyone in this country of some 32 million, where nearly 13 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, is pleased with that.

Least of all President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who came to power in September 2016 following the death of Islam Karimov, the only other ruler Uzbekistan has had since it gained independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mirziyoev, who according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) has taken some steps to improve the country's abysmal human rights record under Karimov, thinks such lavish merrymaking is wasteful.

A wedding can easily cost up to $20,000 in Uzbekistan, where people earn an average of between $100-$300 a month.

Apparently taking its cue from the country's president, the Uzbek Senate issued a decree on August 13 ordering the formation of local committees throughout the country to address the issue.

Analysts say it's a step back from a tougher earlier proposal by the government that would have capped the number of guests at 150 and suggested other curbs, including less meat being served and no wedding cars.

A wedding takes place in Shakhrisabz.
A wedding takes place in Shakhrisabz.

While the intention may seem sound -- safeguarding families of moderate and low incomes from exorbitant expenses -- the government should not "dictate societal morals," argues Steve Swerdlow, an attorney and Central Asia researcher at HRW.

And not everyone is pleased with the idea, including the owners of the large restaurants and palatial wedding halls that cater such events. Capping the number of guests would put quite a crimp in their profits.

Oddly enough, Uzbekistan wouldn't be the first country to try to limit wedding celebrations. Tajikistan passed similar legislation in 2007.

The Tajik Example

Like Mirziyoev, authoritarian Tajik President Emomali Rahmon was angered by extravagant wedding receptions, calling them "unnecessary and unaffordable gatherings."

Rahmon criticized government officials, businesspeople, and religious figures for "showing off their wealth" by hosting extravagant parties and thereby encouraging others with more meager means to copy them.

Tajikistan limited the number of guests permitted at weddings, capped the number of lambs that can be slaughtered for meals and the number of cars allowed in a wedding cortege, and required the families of the bride and groom to split overhead costs evenly.

The Tajik law stipulates a fine of up to $4,000 for offenders and some $5,700 for repeat offenders. In a country where teachers and other public-sector workers make around $150 a month, the government says the high penalties should act as a deterrent.

A wedding in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe last year
A wedding in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe last year

And how has the law in Tajikistan -- locally known as "tanzim," or the "regulation" -- translated into reality?

In 2017, a group of local officials raided a house in southern Tajikistan just hours before a wedding party. They confiscated most of the food the family had prepared for the banquet, deeming the quantities "wasteful."

"We managed to prevent a violation of the law in the village," said Kholmurod Ibrohimov, an official who took part in the August 26 raid in Dahana, on the outskirts of the southern Tajik city of Kulob.

"During the raid, we established that the family prepared a wasteful amount of food, such as special flatbreads and halva for the banquet at the bridegroom's house," Ibrohimov said on September 18, after reports of the seizure emerged. "We seized the food and donated it to the Kulob psychiatric hospital."

Presidential Morals

That Uzbekistan was heading down the same path as its southeastern neighbor became clear when a leaked recording of Mirziyoev emerged in March 2018.

In it, the Uzbek leader rails against "shameless" weddings and calls for limits on guests, meal size, and the number of vehicles in a motorcade.

Mirziyoev's comments came shortly before he visited Tajikistan, prompting many to speculate on social media that he was inspired by his neighbor.

"There should be no more than 150 people at a wedding and 200 for the morning meal. Instead of 20 kilograms of meat, you would do better to paint a poor man's home or buy him a TV," Mirziyoev was recorded as saying, before issuing a threat.

"Everyone's weddings will be the same. If a single high-ranking person -- even a governor or state prosecutor -- breaks these rules, I'll put him in prison. You'll see!"

Will local Uzbek officials begin raiding wedding parties?
Will local Uzbek officials begin raiding wedding parties?

Shortly afterward, a government document that included most of Mirziyoev's "suggestions" appeared in mid-March, triggering a mixed response on social media and elsewhere.

HRW's Swerdlow says it's just another example "of state authorities in Central Asia increasingly dictating societal morals in various spheres."

"For example, several Uzbek TV stations have been taken off the air for showing scenes from Western movies deemed too racy and other singers have had their music videos shut down, which reflects a growing conservatism and an assertion of social censorship," Swerdlow tells RFE/RL, adding that many average Uzbeks would probably welcome such curbs on weddings.

A resident of Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that a local restaurant demanded payment for at least 300 guests.

"I wanted to reserve a restaurant for my brother's wedding but they told me that I'd have to pay for a banquet for 300 people," he said, adding that the head of the restaurant said "that's our policy.

Defending the high prices charged at wedding celebrations, restaurant managers and owners often cite rising costs.

"They've raised the price of electricity, gas, and water several times. On top of that, property taxes have risen. Everything depends on the number of guests," said the manager at one Tashkent restaurant.

"We'll need to add these losses to our expenses for the celebration. The cost for the rent -- calculated for 500 people -- now needs to be spread among 150 people [as a possible limit on guests]. Naturally, the rent for the hall will increase. The price for the menu is calculated a few days before the wedding based on the prices at the bazaar."

Given the controversy, the regulations published by the government in March quietly faded away, not becoming law at the end of March as had been expected.

The August 13 Senate decree calls for the establishment of local committees to address all issues surrounding family gatherings, including weddings and funerals. These committees, according to the decree, will consist of deputies from regional and local councils.

It will be up to them, in theory, to decide what, if any, action is taken against extravagant celebrations.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.