Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbeks Get Accustomed to Alcoholism

Attempts to curb prodigious consumption of alcohol in Uzbekistan are it seems doomed to fail
By Jennifer Balfour

To get an Uzbek Muslim to drink alcohol with a clear conscience an elaborate ritual is required. A drink should be offered not once, not twice, but at least three times, before any self-respecting Uzbek will accept. Such are the complicated customs of the republic's drinking culture.

The pressures to drink are the same throughout the former Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin could not have reached the top without regular binges with those who mattered in the Soviet hierarchy. And recently, Turkmenistan's Turkmenbashi took great pride in his government minister who managed 50 toasts during Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visit.

Drinking prodigiously is not only socially acceptable but actively encouraged. In Uzbekistan, when guests are offered just a dram of vodka, they know that, more often than not, it's simply the signal for the start of an alcoholic encounter whose end can only be described as neither very swift nor very painless.

Once opened, a bottle must be finished to ward off bad luck, and before the uninitiated realises the depths to which he's about to sink the first bottle is finished and a second is already being poured. Group drinking on the other hand is an entirely different matter.

The helpless victim, thinking he has escaped lightly with one or perhaps two toasts, has no idea that the same ceremony is expected with every one of the ten or twenty guests around the table.

To question the ritual or dare to mention health would be taken in very bad taste, and invite bad omens. After all, it's always someone else's husband and father who dies of liver cancer; someone else's buddy who drops down dead of a heart attack at 48.

Every single landmark is commemorated with the fiery water and imparted with a symbolism verging on the religious. Every new purchase is "washed" - the Russian expression for a very alcoholic celebration - every new home, every new job and every new family member.

The only Uzbek milestone not "washed" is death, unlike the Russians whose penchant for a few tots at a funeral is deplored and used as evidence of their infidel status.

Abstainers or, heaven forbid, wine drinkers have a hard time. Abstinence removes men from social intercourse, from close friendship and from the loyalties that only emerge through getting drunk and exchanging heartfelt toasts across a table of men similarly incapacitated.

"You can not trust a man who doesn't drink," said our neighbour who stumbled frequently into our courtyard barred from his home by his wife whose patience had worn thin by years of alcohol induced beatings and abuse.

Vodka addicts squander their income on sugar for a makeshift distillery usually set up in the kitchen. A gift of a filter to our best friend so that his family could enjoy salt-free water was accepted gladly. Later we were told the vodka produced with it was sweeter and purer than it had ever been.

There is no such thing as a "quick drink" in Soviet drinking culture and men are forced by habit to engage in rituals of behaviour from which many, left to their own devices, would ordinarily refrain. Not to proffer several bottles of spirit to a friend who drops in unexpectedly is the ultimate in unsociability and tantamount to rejection, and not to drink, the same.

Every factory and plant has an alcohol committee and every meeting is "washed" with the liquid it is trying to curb. NGOs offering counselling and help for victims of alcohol addiction are told by the Uzbek government that there is no problem. They don't need anyone's help.

Those who try to swim against the tide are ridiculed and expelled from the closely knit, male-dominated network where giving and taking alcohol-soaked hospitality is par for the course.

The rising tide of Muslim fundamentalism in the Ferghana Valley in the east has fuelled a backlash against alcohol in some parts of the capital, but the majority of the population is as pro-alcohol as ever, ensuring that Islamic radicalism will probably gain no more than a tentative foothold in the republic.

Jennifer Balfour worked in education in Uzbekistan for much of the last decade..

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