Robbie Williams’ controversial performance may signal an end to a more open Uzbekistan, says Catharine Hughes
In December last year British singer Robbie Williams performed at the Palace of International Forums in Tashkent, the capital city of Uzbekistan. The concert was arranged by Alisha Usmanov, a staggeringly wealthy Uzbek-Russian. Usmanov has an estimated net worth of $15.1 billion (£10.65bn), making him the 37th richest man in the world, and the second richest in Britain where he currently holds a 29% share in Arsenal. The billionaire officially resides in Lausanne, Switzerland – maybe he has a penchant for fondue, or maybe it’s for the tax breaks; I have a sneaking suspicion it’s the former.
A ticket for Williams’ spectacle ranged from between 1.5 million to 1.8 million soms (£110-£170) which is considerably more than the average Uzbek monthly salary. Many questions were asked about the extortionate price of these tickets, which are somewhat higher than the going price in the West, to which no answers were provided. In response, one website compiled a list of all the items that one could buy in Uzbekistan with this money. The article, entitled ‘How much does a Robbie Williams ticket cost?’, listed 377kg of potatoes, 1360 flatbreads, 38kg of meat or 314kg of flour. I don’t know how much one could do with 377kg of potatoes – perhaps this is subjective – but I’m confident that an abundance of spuds would elicit more than a night of entertainment.
One user went as far as accusing “Robbie” of “infecting Uzbekistan with the disease of democracy”
The bizarre nature of Williams’ visit does not end there. The 43 year old made his entrance on stage donning a traditional Uzbek robe (throughout the evening he would exhibit several traditional Uzbek garments), without the trousers with which it would usually be paired. Subsequently he pulled up the back of the skirt of the robe and announced “this is my arse … tonight, your arse is mine.”
The incident sparked backlash across social media and the internet from many native Uzbeks. One article on eurasia.org, which covers current affairs in Central Asian countries, began by explaining that “in the English provinces, from whence Williams hails, the act of flashing one’s buttocks in public is accepted – not to say encouraged – in a spirit of Hogarthian exuberance, but the stunt has gone down poorly in chaste Uzbekistan”. In defence of our Great British culture, I think it might be nice to throw out a disclaimer at this point – flashing one’s buttocks is not the norm. In certain parts of the land, or indeed ‘provinces’, it definitely wouldn’t be taken lying down, if you’ll excuse the expression.
Some social media uses saw this act as reason alone to purge morally dubious Western influences from the East, “We need to filter out Western culture, if you can even call this culture!” fumed Saiyora Hodjayeva. One user went as far as accusing “Robbie” of “infect[ing] Uzbekistan with the disease of democracy”.
Western artists rarely perform in Uzbekistan, and those who do should be prepared to face the surrounding controversy. In 2010 Sting, frontman of The Police, allegedly accepted one million pounds for a concert organised by Gulnara Karimova, daughter of then President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov. Karimov, who died in September 2016, was the country’s first president following the fall of the Soviet Union and used the implicated power to his own end. His colourful record exemplifies many breaches of basic human rights, including the use of child slaves and boiling people alive as a form of torture.
Prior to Williams’ on stage shenanigans, the concert was seen as a demonstration of Uzbekistan opening up after years under severe authoritarian rule. However, due to the singer failing to do his basic homework, and imposing widespread disrespect, it is quite possible that the Uzbek’s might consider closing their doors to Western horseplay for the time being.