Foreign Service Nationals, the local employees working in U.S. embassies and consulates at every U.S. post of the world, provide the institutional memory for the missions. They remain at post as the American Foreign Service employees with whom they work move to new assignments every two to four years. Known as FSNs these employees staff just about every section of the embassy. They are drivers, electricians, interpreters, information technology professionals, political and economic assistants, switchboard operators, warehouse managers, custom expeditors, security guards, and budget specialists, to name just a few. They provide the American staff with background and context on local issues, contacts, and practices. They know the customs and traditions of the host country, and they help the embassy liaise with host country representatives inside and outside government. They keep the embassy running.

Tamara Burkovskaya came to work at Embassy Bishkek in February 1992, one week after the embassy opened after the newly independent Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet republic. At that time the U.S. government faced the daunting task of opening missions in 14 new countries following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990-91. The embassy building was a small insecure structure in the centre of Bishkek that had previously been an outpatient clinic. The building needed refurbishing, and Tamara played a key role in arranging licenses and permits with the local government, no easy task in a newly forming post-soviet bureaucracy.
The first American employees were sent to Bishkek on temporary duty to help set up the embassy, find housing, and build a foundation for a positive U.S.-Kyrgyz relationship. Tamara was hired as an administrative assistant. She soon found herself involved in everything from negotiating with the new foreign affairs ministry on FSN contributions to the state-administered Social Funds, to scouring Bishkek and its environs for a more suitable embassy building or plot of land on which to build an embassy. She was a vital member of the negotiating team that ultimately succeeded in leasing a sizeable plot of land at the base of the Tien Shan mountains, now home to the chancery and ambassador’s residence.

Tamara has seen Embassy Bishkek grow from a bare-bones outpost to its current lean, but respectable size. There are now 38 Americans assigned to the Embassy in Kyrgyzstan and over 140 FSNs on its staff. After six years in the administrative section, Tamara moved to the political section, where she has worked as a senior political assistant for the past four years. The political assistant’s job, in her words, is ‘to assist the ambassador, deputy chief mission, and political officers keep abreast of all political, social, and economic developments in the country. This involves day-to-day, sometimes hour-by-hour follow-up on various political events.” Since gaining independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has been engaged in an ongoing process of attempting to establish a market economy and democratic institutions. This transition involves constant struggle, as people are torn between attempts to embark on a path of democratic development and temptations to fall back on old familiar Soviet ways of thinking. The embassy tries to play a positive role, whenever possible, in this transition.

To keep abreast of political and economic developments, Tamara follows mass media reporting, reviews government publications, and relies on her extensive contacts among government officials, human rights activists, non-governmental organization representatives, academics, and journalists. She conducts research on human rights cases and current legislative initiatives. She frequently accompanies the ambassador and other embassy officials to meetings with Kyrgyz government officials – including the president of Kyrgyzstan – and other embassy contacts, translating when necessary, taking notes, and contributing information as appropriate. Her primary responsibility as political assistant is to contribute to the embassy’s reporting on a wide range of political and economic issues, but she notes that "working at a small post gives you the luxury of wearing several hats.”

When a high-level visitor comes to a small post, just about every American employee and FSN must get involved to make it happen. Helping prepare for VIP visits by U.S. officials has been a significant part of Tamara’s work at the Embassy throughout her 10-year tenure. This "advance work” has included making appointments, arranging accommodations, compiling briefing materials, facilitating airport clearances, and liaising with the host government on numerous issues. After helping set up the visits, Tamara is often called upon to serve as an interpreter during negotiations for the Status of Forces Agreement that allowed for the deployment of U.S. troops at an airbase near Bishkek. The air base supports the U.S. and coalition military operations in Afghanistan; over 1000 U.S. soldiers are currently stationed there.

Tamara is Russian, but has lived in Kyrgyzstan since the age of 10. She was born in the Altai region, now part of Russia. She has an M.A. in English from the Kyrgyz National University. She spent 12 years working at the Kyrgyz research Institute of Cardiology, first as a translator of medical literature and later as Head of the Medical Information Department. She has a 24-year-old son, Andrey, an interpreter. Tamara was the winner of the State Department’s FSN of the Year Award in 1995.
9329 reads | 05.07.2013

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