The Annals of Chicken Diplomacy

By Joshua Foust

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.

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A new voluntary program in Uzbekistan will pay teachers and doctors in chickens. Reuters

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. 

Did it matter that this explosion of concern in the quality of chicken -- which first saw widespread public expression in 2002 or so -- just happened to coincide with the rise in Russian oil-driven economic vitality and a souring of relations with the U.S. over missile defense? Or that Vladimir Putin's 2010 ban on Bush's Legs also took place right when there was a souring of relations (again) over missile defense negotiations and the New Start de-nuclearization treaty?

It certainly couldn't be because Russian chicken is any better. The Russian Consumer Rights Protection Society found in a June 2010 survey that 8 in 10 domestic Russian chickens sold at the supermarket tested positive for salmonella. Even so, Russians prefer fresh Russian chickens to frozen U.S. chickens, and buy them accordingly (China is following a similar trend -- leading to an incredible oversupply in the U.S. of dark meat chicken). But Moscow isn't above giving their own chicken farmers a little boost.

The U.S. has engaged in its own odd chicken diplomacy as well. Peter van Buren, a career Foreign Service Officer with the State Department, published a memoir last year of his time serving in Iraq. One of the the most memorable chapters in his book, appropriately titled "Chicken Sh*t," is about efforts to revive the Iraqi chicken industry. Van Buren describes the lavish funding a nearby chicken factory received to get new equipment and to hire people.

The factory, it turned out, was worthless. Brazil dominated the the global market for frozen whole chickens and Iraq just couldn't produce poultry cheaply enough to compete (Brazil defends this domination zealously). Worse still, van Buren recounted for NPR, the factory didn't have refrigeration because it did not have electricity -- which makes the idea of a frozen chicken factory rather moot. But rather than admitting failure, van Buren and his team actually created a false factory for when touring VIPs came by, hiring random people to sit on the production line while it processed worthless chickens they could never sell, all to impress a Congressional delegation or administration official into thinking the Iraqi economy was thriving under U.S. leadership.

Even in Afghanistan, chickens can ignite the most bizarre behavior. Last summer, the Taliban tried to ban the sale of frozen chickens in Ghazni province because they thought the chickens were not killed in accordance to Halal food rituals (which are similar to Kosher rules). When I was in Afghanistan in 2009, we would read reports that the Taliban were telling locals that it was their Islamic duty to support local Muslim farmers instead of foreign non-Muslim factory workers, so they should buy locally produced meats.

The Taliban are locavores, in other words. They're also protectionists and, to an extent, mercantilists. But they're also in good company, at least when it comes to chickens. Around the world, frozen chickens can tell us much about how an economy is doing and what its leadership thinks of it.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/04/the-annals-of-chicken-diplomacy/255734/