Wednesday, April 3, 2019

An Uzbek Guide to Surviving a Government Shutdown

I have published three Op-Eds in the HuffPost since leaving Kazakhstan.  If you are interested and haven't seen them, here are the links:
I have to give this to the Department of State:  all three Op-Eds were cleared for publication.  Despite my deep disagreement with State and, in particular, Consular policies expressed in two of these Op-Eds, I am proud to work for a Department that has a place for dissenting views.

Alas, my HuffPost chapter ended with the closing of its Opinion section in early February.  I wasn't even aware other than for the silence that greeted my most recent submission as we were still looking at the threat of another U.S. government shutdown.  My final submission is now published instead here. It's a dark humor look at what government workers could learn from their counterparts in Uzbekistan when it comes to learning how to survive a shutdown.  Enjoy.

If anyone has a suggestion for an outlet replacing the HuffPost Opinion section, do let me know!

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An Uzbek Guide to Surviving a Government Shutdown

We've been through it, a full month of government shutdown.  A federal worker myself, I was one of the victims, first on unpaid furlough and then called back to unpaid, excepted work before the Trump White House finally caved and re-opened the government.  In my office I've struggled to dig us out of the accumulated work and missed deadlines, and I know I'm not alone in that.  Hanging over us all is the threat that this might happen again, soon at that.

We learned many survival techniques in January, and our helpful Departments and Agencies suggested useful ways we could cope without paychecks.  Yard sales, pawn shops, unemployment compensation, and explanatory letters to creditors together with food banks became part of the mix.  The White House saw no big deal for coddled federal workers who no doubt could make do with less.  In the worst case, rich fathers or uncles could see us through, couldn't they?

This was all well and good, but January showed we are for amateurs when it comes to shutdowns.  Why not learn from other countries that have been through this all before, not just for a month but for years on end?  Why not learn from Uzbekistan?  Government workers there are professionals when it comes to surviving shutdowns.

Uzbeks owe their professional shutdown survival skills to President Islam Karimov.  A former Communist Party Secretary who became President after the Soviet collapse, Karimov espoused a policy of Make Uzbekistan Great Again.  Within a few years most ethnic Russians who could get out did get out as Karimov allowed nationalist passions to ignite.  Uzbekistan was now for the Uzbeks.  Down came the statues of Lenin and Marx, and up went statues of Amir Timur, better known in the West as Tamerlane, the new symbol for Uzbek statehood.  Terrorist bombings by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in 1999 led to a total crackdown on dissent of any type.  Even benches were removed from parks so that people would not linger and, horror, talk about life with friends and neighbors.

Karimov introduced trade barriers that effectively cut Uzbekistan off from the rest of the world.  No McDonalds or Burger Kings here.  The policy was import substitution to encourage Uzbek business and industry even as uncompetitive Soviet industrial towns shut down and came to resemble U.S. rest belt towns.  Uzbekistan even withdrew from the unified Central Asia electric grid to keep all electricity generated within its borders, well, within its borders.

The economic picture for Uzbekistan was nothing but rosy . . . according to official Uzbek government figures.  Any source contradicting those figures was news of the most fake variety.  The GDP was grew at a slow but steady pace, and the world financial crisis of 2009 scarcely touched Uzbekistan.  Karimov’s book The global financial-economic crisis, ways and measures to overcome it in the conditions of Uzbekistan called on the rest of the world to follow the Uzbek example to achieve abundant peace and prosperity.  It was pointless to tell any Uzbek official that of course the Uzbek economy had not collapsed.  How could it when it had never risen off its knees in the first place?

The White House could learn much from the Uzbek example that would allow it to pursue its agenda more effectively, but U.S. federal workers also have much to learn from their Uzbek colleagues.  It was normal for government workers in Uzbekistan not to receive salaries for months on end.  When salaries were paid, it was often in kind.  I have Uzbek friends whose balcony was knee-deep in potatoes, their salary in lieu of cash for a month.  When Russia put high tariffs on auto imports from Uzbekistan, the traffic in Tashkent exploded as government workers were given the chance to soak up the overproduction at next to no cost.  (The Chevrolet Matiz, assembled at a facility in the Fergana Valley, sold for only about $5000 in 2009.)  When the government began paying salaries electronically, employees became used to banks telling them there was no cash on hand when they went to make withdrawals.  When pensioners started receiving their pensions on debit cards, they would stand at registers in high-end stores frequented by foreigners and ask that they be allowed to pay with their debit cards in exchange for cash they could use at the food markets.

Somehow or other, Uzbek workers lived on and even thrived after a fashion.  Barter was the name of the game.  “How many kilos of potatoes are needed to buy that Chevy Matiz?”  The old Soviet model, “You pretend to pay me, and we pretend to work,” continued to apply.  Life happened on the side in spite of a government that was, in effect, shut down for more than 25 years until death came for President-for-life Karimov in 2016.

So take heart, federal workers of America.  Ask your Department or Agency to work out a deal with American farmers who have lost their market in China.  Just think what you could do with a balcony knee-deep in soy!  Snip newspaper coupons and offer your services to private sector employees.  You can reduce their weekly food expenses in exchange for a percentage in cold hard cash.  One day you may be able to buy a car from Detroit that no longer has a market outside U.S. borders.  A month’s salary in American whiskey that is no longer competitive in Europe may ease your pain. 

Through it all, ponder that you are helping to level the playing field for government bureaucracies everywhere through your understanding of the Uzbek experience.  One day, perhaps, we may cast off our chains as we realize there is more uniting than dividing government workers in all countries.  In the meantime, Xo'p mayli.  That’s Uzbek for Good or, sometimes and perhaps more to the point in this context, Whatever. . . .

Robyn Alice McCutcheon is a Foreign Service Officer who has served in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Romania.  Although Ms. McCutcheon is employed by the U.S. Department of State, the views expressed in this column are strictly her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.

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