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.

“Businessmen and officials have big-show funerals, and the Shariah [Islamic law] does not condone that,” said Mufti Rakhmatylo Eghemberdiev, head of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan.

“According to Shariah, wastefulness is a sin: Allah forbade it. Besides the stress after a relative’s death, people are also faced with the stress of how to afford horses to slaughter.”

Mr. Eghemberdiev said his organization, which oversees all of the country’s Islamic groups, issued two fatwas, or nonbinding religious rulings, in recent years ordering the faithful to rein in their spending on such occasions. He said it is time for lawmakers to take the initiative.

“Our fatwas don’t really work, so the restrictions should be on the level of the law,” he said.

Kyrgyz lawmakers are expected to debate the bill when they return from summer recess next month, but many doubt that government decrees will be any more effective than religious ones.

“These are our customs and traditions, and no law can change them,” said Akylbek Sariev, a 50-year-old lawyer in Bishkek. “It has been this way from generation to generation. It’s in our blood.

“No one wants to bring shame upon themselves, and you can’t change that with one law,” he said. “The authorities forbid poaching and smuggling, too, and you see the results.”

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