Saturday, October 30, 2010


A rais is a kolkhoz director. The kolkhoz, the Soviet collective farm, does not exist anymore, but the rais is still prevalent in the collective imagination. Arguably, it is the most important public figure that has disappeared with the Soviet Union.

A kolkhoz could be home to 500 people, but also 20.000. For all practical purposes, the kolkhoz leadership was local government. Leadership styles could vary, from quite democratic -listening to the farmers- to quite undemocratic -focussing on the Party, on self- interest. With the gradual privatization of land came the dissolution of the kolkhoz, a fragmentation of ownership and decision- making, a scattering of responsibilities over a host of successor- organizations.

The tasks of the collective farm, supervised by the rais, were distributed over water user associations, machine tractor parks, district architects and surveyors, and mahalla chiefs (leading formalized neighborhood associations). Most of the real decision- making power moved to the district hakims, the political/ administrative leaders. At the village level, a role remained for the rural chairman, in name almost a new rais, in practice a low- level legal servant.

In the last few weeks, we were finally able to meet a fair number of ex- rais. Very helpful. Some of them climbed the ladder in one kolkhoz, others moved around a bit, in different positions in the agro- system, others were specifically appointed for having no local connections at all -like the podesta in Italian city- states. Most of them had an agricultural engineering background. Degrees in law, economic or politics were non-existing or irrelevant for these future super- mayors. The official image of the kolkhoz was that of a production machine; its functions as local government were secondary. Not only land-use, also the community itself was considered mono- functional.

Talking about land use and planning, it struck me once more how virtually everything was presented as planned, sanctioned and approved by others, by the State, by a long list of other organizations. At the same time, decisions were presented as purely democratic, emerging from the ranks of the workers, the families taking care of a few hectares each. That many, if not most, ideas relating to planning and development came from the kolkhoz leadership, remains out of sight first, becomes apparent only after long conversations. Farm managers could decide on many things, if the budget was there and the cotton targets were not touched.

(Saturday, my first wedding party in Uzbekistan. In fact, it was a pre- wedding party, organized by the family of the bride, primarily for women, part of a long list of ritualized events spanning about a week. Excellent food and drinks, conducive to traditional Uzbek dance- I got some practice.)

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