Football fiasco typical of graft in Uzbekistan

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2003, 12:00am

Corruption a way of life - and even death - in land of low pay

An official from the Uzbekistan Football Federation is claiming that his organisation has lost thousands of dollars in income from last week's Asian Cup qualifying Group A football matches involving Hong Kong, Tajikistan, Thailand and the host nation.

The official said that only 2,500 tickets were sold for the last matches in Tashkent on Monday, yet the crowd in the Pakhtakor Stadium was estimated to be between 8,000 and 10,000.

While some of those spectators may have scaled the three-metre fences surrounding the ageing venue, the football federation believes the majority were being allowed in by police officers manning the gates, who were thought to have taken about 300 cym (HK$2.30) from fans who would otherwise have to pay 800 cym for a ticket.

The same official stated that in March - when top Uzbek club side Pakhtakor played Iran's Pirouzi in the Asian Football Confederation Champions' League quarter-finals - fewer than 20,000 people in a capacity crowd approaching 50,000 had bought tickets.

Such allegations will come as no surprise to ordinary Uzbek citizens, many of whom tell the same story of the scale of the black economy in the former Soviet Central Asian states.

'The moment you are born, the nurses and doctors want money. Everyday of your life, people want money from you. It only stops the day they bury you under the ground, and even then, someone will still ask for money from your relatives,' is the popular refrain repeated almost word for word by several Uzbeks.

The endemic corruption in Uzbek society is one of the most enduring and, for the foreign visitor who stays for more than a couple of days, most obvious legacies of the Soviet era, which ended in 1991. As long as wages stay low, the need to supplement one's income is powerful.

'My waiters don't have a salary,' explained 19-year-old Davron Alimov, a restaurant supervisor. 'They only earn a percentage from the tables. Some months, that can be as much as US$100, but when it is not busy, it can be as little as $20. You can't live on $20 a month.

'For me, now it's better that I am the supervisor, but before, even though I am a young man, it was not easy.'

The result is that almost everyone is on the take. Hotel staff habitually undercut their employers, be it for laundry, mobile phone rental or many other things.

Small businesses also suffer. The manager of a newly opened internet cafe near one of Tashkent's universities complained of the additional start-up costs. As well as oiling the cogs of bureaucracy to obtain the necessary licences, the police and the local mafia also need to be paid off.

'Ruslan', one young Uzbek whose list of activities include market trading and a host of other occupations that the English might call 'ducking and diving', explained on condition of anonymity how the system works.

'It's really difficult to start with. You have to find the right people to pay, and often they make you beg. You go to them and say 'please take this money and maybe you can help me'. After a while, when you have been paying them for some time, the price gradually comes down and it becomes easier.

'But in some ways, the system works. Before, under the Soviets, car crime was really bad. Now, no one steals cars. The police introduced 15-year prison sentences, which helped, but also the mafia made it known that if you stole cars, they would kill you.'

Breaking this never-ending spiral of corruption and bribery is one of the toughest tasks that the former Soviet states face. In Ruslan's opinion, there is only one answer.

'They need to start paying people properly. They need to start with the managers, and pay them perhaps US$400 a month on the understanding that they will be honest. Then, bit by bit, things will change.'