Thursday, October 21, 2010

When's the Last Time You Heard the Words "No Problem" in a Government Office in Ukraine?

I heard these words today from the lawyer at the local ZHEK office where my wife has to get some documents for her post-work permit registration. After much experience visiting various Ukrainian government offices, I have to admit I was stunned to hear this from the mouth of a Ukrainian bureaucrat. After 4 previous visits to the ZHEK for a precious stamp, I had been dreading this visit and envisioning a list of additional requirements whose fulfillment would be close to impossible by our document deadline.

Far more typical is a long, tense silence while the officer scours your documents looking for problems, then presents you a list of reasons why they can't do what you need them to do.

- "What is this here? How do you expect us to accept a form that's been copied upside-down on the reverse side?"

- "The rental contract has to have the ZHEK's round stamp and the director's signature. This rectangular stamp won't do."

- "Where's the xerox of the passport page with the most recent entry stamp?"

- "How am I supposed to know how to spell your name in Ukrainian? There should be an official translation with your passport."

- "How can I be sure that the foreigner really wants to be registered if she isn't even here?"

- "This tax statement is only valid for 30 days. It was issued 35 days ago."

- "I need you to write a statement (zayava or zayavlenie) stating what you're asking us to do."

3 out of 4 Ukrainian bureaucrats scowl, look depressed or angry, and just want you to leave them alone as soon as possible. 1 in 4 is serious, but friendly and not interested in asserting power over you, the visitor.

Who benefits from the Ukrainian bureaucratic machine?

The dizzying paperwork required for just about any legal activity in Ukraine creates a situation that favors two types of business activity:

  1. Big business with budgets large enough to hire lawyers to solve all their legal issues using "all available means."
  2. Individuals who work completely under the table
Everything in between these two extremes is punished in the Ukrainian legal machine. Small business development is weak because of the great obstacles to managing a business legally without lawyers and extensive government contacts. Potential entrepreneurs choose instead to join existing organizations and work for a salary because it's easier and safer than trying to build a business alone. Or they go completely underground and pretend to be jobless, but are then unable to grow their business and hire employees.

I think this legal system is a holdover from communism, where individual activity was made extremely difficult, and only large, government sanctioned organizations were able to legally get things done.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On Cafes and Culture

My wife and I visited Chernihiv this weekend, enjoyed the stately center, the ancient churches, autumn leaves, and peaceful atmosphere. It was chilly, so we dropped by a randomly selected cafe on the central street.

The cafe was called "Абажур" (Abazhur) and had a classy interior design, light colors, a high ceiling, a spacious feel despite the relatively small space, and classical music playing. The waitresses were wearing old-fashioned dresses reminiscent of the late 19th century, and the walls were lined with classic literature, mostly Russian and European.

Perhaps for the first time ever in Ukraine, we were in a cafe we truly enjoyed and felt comfortable in. In other cafes there's always something that bugs us -- tacky interiors, loud music, pop music, TV, crowded space, too dark, smoking allowed, etc. etc.

It occurred to me that I had never before heard classical music in a cafe in Ukraine. What a shame. Instead, music for public places in Ukraine is chosen based on the "least common denominator" principle. In other words, music is chosen that satisfies the tastes and expectations of the least sophisticated visitor.

Basically, nearly everywhere you go in Ukraine you must listen to music for young teenage girls -- unsophisticated, sexy, and pathetic pop. Baffingly, this is even what most minibus drivers turn on, and these are grown men who should be beyond girly teenage pop.

There are few places to go where you can enjoy more sophisticated tastes, aside from the local philharmonic hall. Older educated people say that the culture has degraded and that things used to be better. I wasn't around then, so I can't say for sure.

A few hours after leaving this unexpected cafe filled with sophisticated-looking people and reserved but charming waitresses, we took another break at a kiosk next to the park. We bought our MacCoffee and chocolate bar and sat down on plastic patio chairs underneath an open "Obolon Beer" cloth pavilion and sipped out of the plastic cup while trying to stay warm. A nearby speaker blared in-your-face teenage girl pop. We were back in the real Ukraine.