Uzbek farmers face criminal charges for not growing cotton, wheat

Farmers in eastern Uzbekistan are likely to face criminal charges for growing fruits, vegetables and other crops that they can sell instead of cotton and wheat demanded by the state. The agriculturists, in theory, belong to the private sector but in practice are tied to Soviet-style rules binding them to grow cotton and grain and to sell it to the state at artificially low prices. Uzbekistan was a part of the former Soviet Union.

The prosecutor's office in Kuva district in the densely-populated Fergana valley is investigating farmers suspected of having breached contracts requiring them to grow a certain quota of the two strategic crops of Uzbekistan. Cotton is a major export, while wheat is grown as part of a strategy of making the country self-sufficient. Also under scrutiny are some government officials suspected of letting farmers breach the rules.

The case highlights the paradox between the free market that exists on paper and the planned economy that dominates in reality. An official who did not want to be named said, "Authorities are committed to the free market in paper. But they regularly force farmers to sign contracts from which they will see no profit. The low state purchase prices for grain and cotton mean that farmers eke out a miserable existence.' In contrast, fruit and vegetables can be quickly turned into hard cash, and sells at a realistic market price. "It's more profitable to grow cucumbers or grapes on one-fifth of a hectare (ha) than to have cotton over 20 ha,' said a Fergana farmer.