Kazakhstan On Line

Many people living in Kazakhstan spend a lot of their time on line. Shopping, banking, voting, even medical procedures, all require going on line, sometimes for extended periods.

In case you hadn't guessed, I don't mean by using the Internet. I mean by getting in a line-- or at least what passes for a line in the former Soviet Union.

Back in kindegarten one of the first things I recall being taught was how to line up single file. We lined up when the bell rang so we could file into the school. We lined up single file to go in to lunch. We lined up single file to leave school at the end of the day. We lined up single file to get on the bus to go home. Thankfully it was not quite the military. No one ever requested that we line up alphabetically by height.

Of course, even the most sedate and orderly of children (if those words may even be applied) know the difference between being at the front of the line as opposed to the back of the line. Sometimes being in the front granted no advantage whatsoever-- with each student assigned their own permanent desk, there was little incentive to be at the front of the line to file inside in the morning, unless the weather was cold. Lining up to leave was usually done alphabetically to avoid competetion for the first spots heading home.

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Lunch, however, was a different situation. The inevitable jockeying for the best positions in the lunch line led to the development of an entire line culture-- a line ettiquette, which can rougly be expressed as an unwavering belief in the unshakeable physical and temporal integrity of the corporeal line and its identity with the logical line. This means that your place in line is not secured by the act of achieving a position in the line, but in maintaining it. It's first come, first served, and no cutsies-- no backsies, no frontsies.

Cutsies, of course, is cutting the line-- an independent person inserting themselves into the line at an arbitrary point, rather than at the end. Backsies and frontsies are two particular kinds of cutsies, where the independent person acts in concert with an accomplice already in the line, either by inserting themselves in front of the accomplice (frontsies) or behind them (backsies).

Of course, cutsies of any kind immediately label both the cutter and the accomplice as worthy of derision, but backsies are like a slap in the face compared to frontsies-- a declaration by the accomplice that the cutter is more important than anybody else in line behind them, but not the accomplice himself.

If you leave the line for more than the shortest possible time-- to talk to someone, to go to the bathroom, for any reason-- you've lost your place in line and must go to the end. The punishment for being discovered misbehaving in the line-- either trying to cut or allowing others to cut, or doing something else generally not allowed-- was likewise being sent to the back of the line.

However, all of this is a doddle compared to the much wider variety of line culture expressions that exist in the FSU.

Single file lines unmaintained by physical barriers or armed law enforcement officials simply do not exist. The most common of these would be in supermarket checkout lines, which are simply too narrow to allow more than one or perhaps two people to pass simultaneously. Supermarket lines are almost a separate subject in and of themselves, and so I will only mention them in passing here as a rare example of an FSU single file line, albeit one enforced by physical barriers.

Other kinds of lines generally exhibit either a much more complex cultural structure, or a much simpler, one might even say primitive, one, depending on the context.

In the more complex structures, the logical line and the pysical line are almost entirely separate. Walking into an administrative office, or a bank lobby, or a doctor's office, one will observe people arriving asking who is last. The idea here is to find out who is last and inform them that you come after them. Once this is achieved, it is actually no longer necessary to even remain in or near the line-- which more often than not is actually just a collection of people in a waiting area with no discernible order.

Of course, this system presents a few problems. Since anyone feels free to leave after establishing themselves in the order, it is very likely that the "last" person in line, or even the last few people in the line, will not actually be present when you show up. The people who remain in line may have been paying attention closely enough to note who has arrived and who has left and so tell you how many people are waiting, where they've gone, and who really is last. However, this cannot always be depended on, as many people only pay attention to who is immediately before them, and none at all to those behind them, unless someone has specifically requested it (and sometimes not even then).

In certain cases, the disconnection between the logical and physical line is so complete that people waiting in one line for something, say, for example, a medical procedure, may spend that entire time in line waiting without the necessary paperwork to have that procedure.

From one perspective, this is analogous to waiting in the lunch line until you reach the front, and just then realizing that your lunch money is back in your desk, and only going back for it then.

However, the reasons for it in this case are clear: line waits can be so unpredictable that it is often unclear if one actually has the time available to wait until one reaches the front. So in the case of the doctor's office, if you want access to a procedure such as a sonogram, before you can go in and have it done, you need to pay at a window and get a receipt. But the people waiting in line haven't paid yet and don't have receipts. They wait until they are second in line, then leave, go to the payment window, get their receipt, and then return, dependent on the rest of the line to not jump ahead of them after they leave. The reason is that if one should give up waiting at any point, you haven't wasted any money on something you haven't got time for.

To the uninitiated this can look like complete and utter chaos, but there is a strong logic underlying this kind of line behavior, and while not ideal, it does offer some benefits over the kindergarten-style line I described earlier.

One of those advantages is that since it is based on getting service in the order one arrived, rather than physical position in a line, it is much less likely to devolve into violence, although it may lead to arguments. This kind of line usually occurs in public offices where traffic is relatively light-- thirty people or less, with a reasonable amount of space and seating.

With more people, less space, or in some cases goods or services in higher demand, this kind of line logic tends to go away, replaced with a more aggressive and usually unregulated form of the physical line model.

A good example of such a line I saw on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border earlier this week. An unexpected number of Kyrgyz citizens were seeking to enter Kazakhstan, while at the same time, several of the only four windows for passport control were manned by young officers. Whether that, or computer problems, or some other factors were at play, was impossible to say, but the wait was well over two hours to reach the front of any of the window lines, and there was no physical regulation in place-- no ropes, no bars, and no intervention by local officials, even though several soldiers stood just outside.

Of course, rather than forming a single file line behind each windows, the crowd simply massed at the front of the room, flowing to each side of the window and trying to press inwards. At the back of the room, a young woman inquiring who was last was met with a few chuckles. At the front of the room, people waiting stretched out their hands as far as possible to grab hold of the metal frame of the passport control booths-- both as a way of holding themselves up against the press of the crowds to either side, and as a way of blocking people from behind from passing them.

Inside the booths themselves, where ordinarily only one person is permitted to stand at one time, were as many as ten people, all pushing each other with one hand while holding their passports aloft in the other. Periodically the officer would have to ask people to lower their passports, as they were blocking the view of the camera used to photograph people crossing the border for comparison to their passport photos.

The force of people pushing from behind literally meant that some people were already standing in Kazakhstan without having had their passports stamped, and they had to argue with people behind them in line for a chance to give their passports to the officer.

Of course, it goes without saying that the pushing and the shoving-- not to mention the periodic exhortations for this booth or that booth to either work faster or quit-- did anything to make the line move any faster. Those who thought that going around the sides of the line to reach the front would be clever were met with straight-arms by those at the front eager to keep their places. Old men, mothers with babies, and people looking for lost relatives came in the back of the room seeking help or assistance reaching the head of the line to no avail. Sometimes the officials would request that people in the line move back from the booths, but this had no effect whatsoever, and no soldiers came to enforce the request.

The FSU region certainly has slightly different standards for personal physical space than other countries do, especially when it comes to waiting on line. Be prepared, be assertive-- but stay calm. I was surprised myself when, even despite all the shoving going on, people stayed generally civil and even traded jokes from time to time. Only a couple of heated arguments broke out over the course of two hours, and the descent into blows that I was constantly fearing never happened.