Kyrgyzstan eyes law to curb extravagance

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BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — In Kyrgyzstan, opulence is not an option for weddings and funerals — it’s an obligation.

Extravagant gifts, sumptuous meals and lavish ceremonies are the norms for revelers and celebrants in this mineral-rich but cash-poor Central Asian nation.

Now the government is trying to legislate frugality in an effort to keep its citizens from bankrupting themselves.

“The Kyrgyz are very social, and their lifestyle is regulated by national customs,” said Omurbek Tekebaev, a lawmaker who first tried to curb spending on funerals with a draft bill in 2002. “Society’s opinion is crucial, and this leads to unaffordable expenses for the population. The Kyrgyz are prisoners of their traditions.”

Kyrgyzstan has a mostly agrarian economy, and its gross domestic product amounts to about $4.6 billion, according to 2010 World Bank figures. The country has a 9 percent unemployment rate, and nearly 34 percent of the people live below the poverty line.

Yet the country’s 5.5 million citizens spend about $2 billion a year on weddings, funerals and other ceremonies, according to the Kyrgyz Ministry of Economic Development and Trade.

Locals say the pressure to slaughter livestock and dole out costly gifts and bountiful meals to hundreds of guests means that the announcement of an engagement or a death has become a frequent precursor to bankruptcy.

“For a funeral, many slaughter expensive livestock — perhaps three or four horses,” said lawmaker Kanybek Osmonaliev, who is behind an initiative to outlaw such extravagance.

A livestock animal such as a cow or a horse costs about $1,500, which is eight times Kyrgyzstan’s average monthly wage, Mr. Osmonaliev said. A restaurant meal for the average 300 to 400 guests at a Kyrgyz wedding can easily top $12,000.

“A Kyrgyz man is just not a good guy if he doesn’t want to invite all his relatives, friends, acquaintances, colleagues and neighbors,” said Mairam Abylkasymova, a 75-year-old poet from Bishkek, the capital city. “Besides feeding, one should also give gifts; otherwise, the guests might be offended and he will be blamed for the rest of his life.”

Mr. Osmonaliev’s bill would limit the legal number of wedding guests to 200, ban alcohol and the slaughter of animals at funerals, and place limits on expensive wedding gifts.

Observers say that such ceremonies have deep historical and cultural roots, but an emphasis on community has been replaced by a focus on ostentation.

“The nomad Kyrgyz didn’t have meetings. They discussed all their issues at ceremonies and funerals,” Ms. Abylkasymova said. “These events gathered and united people.

“But since independence [from the Soviet Union], some rich people changed all that. … Now when Kyrgyz meet at weddings or funerals, they compete to show their wealth.”

Supporters of the bill say it would promote a return to more traditional, conservative and less-flashy ceremonies — an aim supported by Kyrgyz religious figures.

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