Uzbekistan: Billiards Ban Enrages Fans

A bizarre ban on billiards, one of the country's most popular sports, has stunned players and fans alike.

Uzbekistan: Billiards Ban Enrages Fans

A bizarre ban on billiards, one of the country's most popular sports, has stunned players and fans alike.

The government appears to be distancing itself from a national ban on billiards clubs that has infuriated and baffled players in equal measure.

The ban has been in place for a number of weeks, but no one knows which government department made the decision.

It is claimed that police and tax service officers, who were sent to close down and seal premises owned or regulated by the Uzbekistan Billiards Federation, failed to produce any documentation to authorise their actions.

Federation president Bakhrom Sadykov said, "I don't understand why the government has decided to prohibit billiards - it's a sport that is recognised all over the world. If we live in a democracy, why can't we play a game we enjoy?"

A spokesman for the Uzbek cabinet office said the decision was not theirs, as the issue was not serious enough to warrant central government attention. The president's office also claimed to have no connection with the ruling, saying such matters were the preserve of the Tashkent city administration.

The Tashkent local government press service says the crackdown came after billiard clubs systematically flouted a 1998 city regulation, which requires all entertainment establishments to close by midnight.

"Many stayed open until dawn, and several also sold alcohol without a licence. Drugs were sold in a number, and there were often fights and brawls, so the decision was made to close the clubs to lower the crime rate," said city administration press secretary Dilshod Nazirov.

However, when pressed by IWPR, the Tashkent authorities could not say why a local government ruling should apply nationwide.

Federation members suspects the city authorities imposed the ban for purely financial motives. They say clubs will in future require licences and this system may encourage some officials to demand bribes.

The licensing system is causing frustration, but the federation believes it has no other option than to accept the demands.

Billiards enthusiasts categorically deny that the sport is linked to criminal activity. "People who want to abuse substances can do so easily in other places, and closing our clubs will not make drug addicts and drinkers give up drink or drugs," said Aktam Ishmetov, the federation's executive secretary.

Oleg, a regular billiard player, told IWPR that the ban made little sense, as he knew of cases where drug addicts' needles had been found in the toilets at hairdressers, cafés and restaurants. "Shall we close them down as well?" he asked.

Sadykov argues that if the authorities really want to crack down on criminal activity, it may be more productive to investigate each alleged offence, rather than prevent people from playing a popular sport.

The decision had come at a particularly unfortunate time, as the International Olympics Committee has just agreed to include the sport in the next games.

The federation's president believes that the ban has ruined Uzbek players' chances of taking part in such a high-profile competition. "Now our sportsmen don't have anywhere to train," Sadykov complained.

Uzbekistan boasts an excellent track record in the sport. Dmitry Khan won the world championships in 1995, and Rustam Usmanov came third in the same competition six years later.

The ban has been likened to neighbouring Turkmenistan's bizarre decision to prohibit opera and ballet.

Galima Bukharbaeva is the director for IWPR in Uzbekistan.

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