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Archive for Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Uzbekistan bans billiards as morally harmful pastime

October 23, 2002

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— Bakhrom Sadykov forlornly fingers the black-and-gold scoreboards at his once-bustling billiard club, where the sharp crack of balls hitting one another has gone silent.

A few weeks ago, Uzbek authorities banned the popular pastime, apparently in the belief that billiard halls, which have multiplied here since the country's 1991 independence from the Soviet Union, have become places of vice.

But Sadykov, president of Uzbekistan's Billiard Federation, still comes here to pass the time with a game of cards. "We'll need just two days to put things together again and open the club," he says longingly.

The ban came as a shock to many Uzbeks, who see it as a blow to their freedom, already limited in this nation still ruled by a communist-era boss.

Some liken it to the ban on television and music by Afghanistan's radical Taliban, or a ban on opera and ballet in nearby Turkmenistan.

Yet while Uzbekistan is mostly Muslim, the crackdown on vice doesn't square with the government's history of staunchly secular policies.

What government agency initiated the ban is a mystery. Officials say there was no government decree, and city officials also don't know where the order came from.

The authoritarian government run by President Islam Karimov doesn't face any free press that compels it to explain its decisions in depth.

And yet, all billiard clubs are now under lock and key, their signs torn down. Managers at one supermarket that had a few billiard tables were told to cover them so they couldn't be seen.

Tashkent city spokesman Dilshod Nazirov said billiard halls were a public nuisance, noisy places where people were doing drugs and drinking too much.

He suggested billiard halls brought the ban on themselves by selling alcohol and tobacco without licenses, and regularly flouting a city ordinance requiring clubs and restaurants to close at midnight.

But many Uzbeks question whether public morality was indeed the motive, noting vodka is still the national drink and striptease shows are a regular feature at nightclubs and restaurants.

No one agrees on the real reason. Rumors on the street range from a purge of organized crime to a further battle against cue-stick-toting extremists to possibly just that some bureaucrat's son lost big at the table.

Whatever the case, the ban now means the effective end to billiards as a sport in Uzbekistan. The Billiard Federation has been abolished. The national billiard team can no longer practice or participate as planned in upcoming tournaments in Kazakhstan, Germany and Thailand. Uzbekistan has at least two dozen strong competitive players, including top competitors Dmitry Khan and Rustam Usmanov.

"We are frustrated. We have devoted all our lives to billiards," said Sadykov, the federation president. "Why should real, professional billiards suffer because of breaches in some private clubs?

"People drink alcohol in cafes and teahouses, too why not shut them down?"

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