Uzbekistan is now paying its teachers and doctors in poultry, part of a long and bizarre trend of fowl-related international affairs in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The government of Uzbekistan -- no stranger to the bizarre and upsetting -- recently made a truly head-scratching decision. A new voluntary service, according to a report in RFE/RL, now allows teachers and even some doctors to receive part of their salary in Serbian chickens.
Of course, like most "voluntary" programs in Uzbekistan, it is nothing of the sort -- and RFE/RL quotes plenty of people saying they were given the live animals against their will. The Uzbek government has distributed tens of thousands of chickens: 10 chicks per public sector employee. These civil servants are then expected to fulfill a February decree by cabinet ministers to increase the domestic production of milk, eggs, dairy, poultry, and vegetables.
How teachers and doctors, who are most certainly not farmers, will succeed in raising these animals remains unclear. It's not even a cost-saving measure: the Serbian chicks appear to cost a bit more than their domestic Uzbek counterparts. So what on earth is happening?
Chickens are a surprising bellwether for international economic and political issues. Sounding for all the world like some modern-day Khrushchevian Red Plenty economic master plan, the Uzbek government has demanded that not only agriculture do more, but that industry reduce costs and increase production -- just like that. More more more for less less less. So why the chicken handouts?
One indication might be in the dramatic increase this year in remittances back to Uzbekistan. The Central Bank of Russia recently released a report that suggests a nearly 50% increase in remittances from Russia to Uzbekistan in 2011, which indicates a flagging economy in the Central Asian nation. Uzbekistan, a gas-exporting country, has also been experiencing gas shortages and is globally ranked as poorly on economic freedom as it is on human rights or political liberties.
But Uzbekistan is hardly the only country to react to a changing political climate through chickens. In the early 1990s, a collapsing Gorbachev-era Russia was experiencing food shortages and hunger. President George H.W. Bush came up with a win-win solution: give surplus U.S. chicken meat to Russia. The U.S. has an insatiable appetite for white chicken breast meat, but in the process produces far more dark chicken leg meat than it could possibly consume. President Bush took that excess and sent it to Russia. The Russians devoured it, proclaiming the beauty of such enormous drumsticks, and to this day chicken hindquarters in Russian are often called "Bush's Legs."
Of course, good will and chicken gratitude did not last. By the 2000s, Russian President Vladimir Putin was complaining about the Americans' use of antibiotics, hormones, and sterilization in U.S. chicken. Russia may have accounted for 22% of American chicken exports, but the fears over the quality of U.S. chicken prompted a drastic curtailment of its production in 2010.