Kyrgyz Fritter Cash on Festivities

Experts say extravagant ceremonies are draining the population’s finances.

Kyrgyz Fritter Cash on Festivities

Experts say extravagant ceremonies are draining the population’s finances.

After a think-tank in Kyrgyzstan reported that the economy was suffering because weddings, funerals and other ceremonies were being conducted so lavishly, local observers said these social patterns would take a long time to break.

In a survey late last year, the Bishkek Consensus Economic Policy Institute found that Kyrgyzstan’s population spends around one billion US dollars every year on marking key life events.

This is a massive amount equivalent to about a third of annual gross domestic product or half the country’s foreign debt, all the more so in a country where 40 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and nearly one in ten people is unable to afford enough food, the institute said.

“The aspiration to hold sumptuous feasts and weddings and decent funerals and wakes is present in every nation,” said the survey report. “However, there has been a tendency recently for these traditions to take a form that goes far beyond all reasonable boundaries, and turns ordinary people’s lives into a torment.”

The Bishkek Consensus researchers said the massive billion-dollar figure they arrived at was based only on looking at four major types of Kyrgyz ceremony – weddings, funerals, commemorations for the dead, and a celebration known as “tushoo kesuu” or “cutting the reins”, at which a one-year-old child is symbolically released into the world.

The experts concluded that the money splurged on traditional feasts was constraining economic growth and living standards. It urged the government to encourage more rational use of this money, noting that “frugal expenditure on family celebrations could boost savings and investment, and thus better economic growth”.

However desirable such a change, local commentators say it will be difficult to change long-held attitudes. There is massive social pressure to lay on the most spectacular celebrations possible, and failure to live up to this can cause people to be shunned, even by extended family members.

Mehrigul Ablezova, assistant sociology professor at the American University of Central Asia, explained that spending patterns changed after Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991 and the advent of a free market economy created a more stratified society. In Soviet times, everyone was supposed to be equal, so ostentation was discouraged.

Nowadays, said Ablezova, people are under pressure to prove their social standing by spending well beyond their means.

“Being labeled ‘poor’ can have many negative consequences; it can make it impossible for someone to marry off their son or daughter,” she said. “When the better-off people set the pace, the rest have to follow.”

A typical Kyrgyz couple, Urmat and Zarina, had a wedding that cost the equivalent of 10,000 US dollars, including various prenuptial events and purchases. Urmat has a small business and was able to pay some of the costs, but his family had to borrow most of the rest.

For comparison, 5,000 soms or 140 US dollars would be considered a reasonable monthly wage in Kyrgyzstan.

According to Kyrgyz tradition, various relatives have to chip in with a contribution, known as “koshumcha”, for family events. Even a modest contribution can be a burden when multiplied by the number of one’s relatives and all the obligations that need to be met.

Urmat’s uncle Mukhtar said, “I was invited to my nephew’s wedding, and now I have to find a way of coming up with the koshumcha. It would be a disgrace to give less than 1,000 soms [20 dollars], but that is half my salary.”

Mukhtar knows that if he fails to do the right thing at this wedding or other celebrations, he could be dropped by family members and would miss out on reciprocal support when he hosted his own events, or if he found himself in real need of help.

The traditional extended family network has become more important over recent years in Kyrgyzstan, not least because the state can no longer be expected to provide decent public services.

“Today, people are increasingly integrated into social networks,” explained Ablezova. “On the one hand, they are potential sources of financial and emotional support, but on the other, they can be quite burdensome and lead to a lower standard of living.”

A journalist who asked not to be named agreed, saying, “The influence of the clan or family has increased. Everything we do has to factor in the opinion of relatives and neighbours, whose respect makes us feel more secure.”

Yet even in rural areas where traditions are strongest, there are people who would like to see a more sensible approach.

“Above all, we need to get rid of unreasonable spending on funerals,” said Janyl, the village of Kum Aryk, just outside the capital Bishkek. “Many people in our village think that if you don’t slaughter livestock and spend a lot of money on the funeral ceremony, you’re showing disrespect for the deceased. The villagers notice what animals you slaughter, and how many of them.”

The woman said that while many villagers shared her view, none dared break with tradition.

However, there are villages which have taken matter into their own hands, agreeing a rule that only one sheep can be killed for a funeral repast. But these self-regulating systems generally do not last long, as pressure to spend is great and there is no way to enforce the limitation.

Kyrgyz observe the Muslim faith, but tend to ignore recommendations from clerics to live a modest lifestyle.

“Extravagant feasts are regarded as a sin under Sharia law,” said Omurbek Jaliyev, a mullah from the central mosque in the town of Karabalta. “We are trying to get people to understand this precept.”

The Kyrgyz authorities have also tried to put their own house in order, at least on paper. A government decree from 2006 “on the conduct of family celebrations by civil servants” was intended to curb wasteful spending among officials.

Ablezova suggested that a broad campaign involving respected community elders and the clergy might begin to change minds. She believes such an initiative, launched at grassroots level and simultaneously by top officials, would find a receptive audience.

“People have become practical and the majority are ready for a change,” she said.

Asyl Osmonalieva is an IWPR correspondent in Bishkek.
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