Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"Kyiv. The City to Come Back."

This is a letter to the editor of Korrespondent magazine (kind of a Ukrainian Newsweek) that I sent last month. Unfortunately, it wasn't published. My letter comments on a new branding campaign for the city of Kiev that includes the slogan — "Kyiv. The city to come back." Hmm... is there something wrong with that?

Here's my letter in the Russian original:

"Город, которому вернуться"

Как Вам такой лозунг города? Звучит странно, не правда ли? А ведь именно так переводится лозунг, предложенный в рамках нового бренда города Киева — "Kyiv. The city to come back". В статье "Что в городе твоем", Корреспондент № 45 от 26.11.2010 написано — "концепцию бренда Киева его компания [Superheroes] апробировала на иностранцах — экспертах из США, Германии, Италии и Франции". Если это действительно так, то почему никто не исправил вопиющую грамматическую ошибку, ведь правильно будет "The city to come back to" или "A city to come back to" ("Город, куда стоит вернуться"). Подобная ошибка будет вызывать недоумение и смех у тех самых иностранцев (в первую очередь носителей английского языка), на которых и направлен бренд, и лишь укрепит образ Киева как столицы отсталого государства и "города, который однажды вернётся".

(link to article in Korrespondent magazine)


There's good news! I recently stopped by the new Tourist Information Office in Kiev on Kreschatyk Street and saw that the logo discussed in Korrespondent was actively in use. The motto, however, had been changed to "Kyiv. You will come back." Much better!

Dominos Pizza Comes to Kiev

Ah, the benefits of globalization! Real American pizza (Dominos Pizza) is now available in Kiev. And judging by the popularity of the first joint to open, others will be coming soon enough, and eventually in other cities across Ukraine. Pizzerias are particularly popular in western Ukraine, but they could still use a Dominos!

I've studied the Dominos at Kontraktova Ploscha, 2/1 very thoroughly and would like to share what I've learned.

Prices are quite low, and if you figure out their specials you can get extremely good deals:
  • On Tuesdays there's a "buy one get one free" deal on pizzas. You can get a large pizza for as little as 68 UAH (for instance, a Hawaiian pizza) and get another one of equal or lesser cost free. That's just over $4 USD per large pizza and enough to feed three people.
  • There are 3 combos on their menu. #2 is the best deal, costing 99 UAH ($12.50 USD) for 2 medium-sized pizzas, a salad, and breadsticks. That's a savings of 69 UAH and, once again, food enough for 3 people.
Furthermore, delivery is free throughout Podil (a historical district of the city where the author happens to live).

The restaurant itself has a great atmosphere, seems very efficient, and has a nice, large bathroom. I think they'll be very successful.

I should mention that the pizza is very tasty, too.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Back in the USSR... You Don't Know How Lucky You Are

My relationship with Eastern Europe goes way back to 1994, when I was an exchange student in Slovakia, which had recently separated from the Czech Republic (the so-called "Velvet Revolution"). The country was in the early stages of developing a market economy and a European-style political culture and was widely considered poor and underdeveloped.

Actually, it seemed perfectly fine. People seemed as happy as they can be at this latitude, the culture was a healthy, middle-of-the-road mixture of individualism and collectivism, people could travel freely and engage in many kinds of activities, and one did not sense the presence of a ubiquitous suppressive government machine. Perhaps I was too young to pick up on some adult things like politics and societal structure. I believe there was some suppression of freedom of speech regarding political matters, but I am not aware of any other ways that the Slovaks were not free.

Next stop was Russia in 1996-98. Going there, I knew it would be "Slovakia times 2" relative to my country of birth (USA). That turned out to be exactly the case. Things were more run-down than in Slovakia, people were more helpless and desperate, the economic hardships were greater, there were fewer opportunities and less sense of personal freedom of movement, speech, and opportunity.

At the same time, Russia was an interesting place. I didn't fully realize what this meant at the time, but Russia had just suffered a monumental collapse of society. Production had fallen by 50%, everyone had lost their life savings, and many societal institutions had ceased to function. At the same time, almost everyone was living in their own apartment and had no debt and, essentially, no taxes to pay. Many basic services were provided free by what remained of the state machine.

Few people at the time knew English or were interested in it. I had full Russian language immersion for nearly 2 years. There was little motivation yet to learn English, since it was nearly impossible for most people to leave the country, and the modern corporate juggernaut of Russian pseudocapitalism had barely begun to grow out of the rubble of the collapsed economy.

The Russians were tangibly dissatisfied with life. Their education and profession, once important social assets, now meant almost nothing. The system they had grown up in had ceased to function. One often had to do demeaning things to get by. The American ethos of "making a difference in the world" seemed laughably inadequate when transplanted to Russian soil. You can only "make a difference" by creating a system or transforming a system, which itself can function only by integrating with existing foundational systems of society. People were busy simply trying to get by and make the best of their situation.

Then came Ukraine, which I first visited in 2000. By then the "rambunctious 90s" had basically ended, thugs and mafia had either died off or institutionalized, and a semblance of law and order had returned to most of the former Soviet Union. My young Ukrainian friends were earning under $150 a month except for rare exceptions. People received their salaries in envelopes, and US dollars were the main currency in use for "anything serious."

Ukrainians were tangibly lacking freedom of speech and access to government. People talked of the "regime" and of the difficulties of getting by in the shadow economy. Everyone was outside the law in some way or another. Government was either avoided (by individuals) or bribed (by businesses).

In the 2000s, the economy started to pick up after years of contraction. More and more consumer goods were making their way into the country, and real salaries were rising faster than expenses. People started investing money in real estate (banks were still not trusted), and prices rose by leaps and bounds. Cell phones became popular, dial-up Internet was replaced by cable, flat-screen monitors appeared, and rumors of wireless Internet began to seep in.

The mood of the country had changed perceptibly. A sense of optimism had appeared that had formerly been absent. People sensed that their life was actually improving and that stable economic growth was occurring. They began to plan for the future. Banks accommodated them by offering loans and mortgages, first for just a few years, then eventually up to 10 years. 10 years of predictable economic conditions in Ukraine! -- the thought seemed almost believable for the first time in decades.

In the middle of the 2000s, there was a blip called the Orange Revolution. Widespread economic optimism about the future demanded a more accommodating government with more modern ideals. The new leaders made optimistic statements in the spirit of the time and enjoyed widespread support from a little over half of the population.

Despite the new government's incompetency, basic economic fundamentals pushed the economy forward and contributed to a rising standard of living. I discontinued my internship program because it just seemed too expensive now to come to Ukraine and work without pay at some organization for a period of time. It used to be that one could get by on $400-500 a month, which is not too much for students and young professionals from the West, but now living expenses were pushing $1000 in Kiev and other big cities.

Within just a year or two of the Orange Revolution, the new government was deemed a failure by a vast majority of the population. Legislation and development projects were at a standstill, and campaign rhetoric had not translated into actual deeds and government policies. At the same time, government offices were as corrupt as ever or even worse.

Then came the financial crisis of 2008. Real estate prices fell by half, credit dried up almost overnight, and the Hryvnia lost 40% of its value against other currencies. Construction projects in Kiev were shut down, and large numbers of labor migrants had to leave the city and return home for lack of work. Suddenly, people who had taken out dollar loans were barely making their debt payments, and people began to go bankrupt.

The mirage of economic stability disappeared once more. Even after the semi-recovery of 2010, national debt payments hang over the country's head, and there are persistent rumors of a coming wave of economic difficulties and further declines in real estate prices. The mood is cautiously optimistic to overtly pessimistic.

The new government leaders have proved to be more organized and coordinated in their actions, and infrastructure projects have been boldly resumed, but government decisions are making life harder for people, not easier. Procedures are becoming more difficult to perform, the tax burden is growing, and doing business is becoming more and more difficult, particularly for small and medium-sized business.

But Ukrainians are now better acquainted with the rest of the world. People have been to Egypt, Turkey, Vienna, Poland... Ukraine even got its first low-cost airline. Ukrainian "gastarbeiter" know the ropes in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Russia. Everyone is either using their English, trying to learn English, or self-flagellating over not being active enough about learning English. Internet use is widespread and ubiquitous for the under-30 crowd (at least in cities).

Awareness about how things could be in Ukraine is growing continuously. The older generation only knows how things are now and how they were in Soviet Union times. The consumer culture has become more and more internationalized and cosmopolitan, while politics is still dominated by people who began their careers in the Soviet Union and continue to gravitate to time-tested authoritarian and Soviet models of governance.

My experience with government bodies of late has convinced me that very little has changed in the operations of the government machine in the past 20 years. Dealing with these offices is like stepping back in time several generations. No one with any power has, as of yet, taken any decisive steps to transform the actual workings of the government machine.

After 15 years of visiting the former USSR, I can say that what is holding Ukrainians back most from a happy life is not a lack of money or economic development, but things like a lack of solidarity and community, a lack of trusting relations with their own government (the phrase even sounds comical), a sense of helplessness due to corruption in the law enforcement and justice systems, the difficulty of legalizing one's activities and residence, etc.

No amount of iPads and personal automobiles can compensate for the underlying sensation of oppression and helplessness permeating Ukrainian society. By working hard and having the right connections one can jump up the corporate ladder, rise above the hardships of the common man, and physically separate oneself from the unpleasant elements of Ukrainian society and the innumerable "tragedies of the commons," but an enduring sense of security is always unattainable.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Our Court Appearance, Fine, Fingerprints & Mugshot

Next stop along the Nine Circles of Hell...

Our journey to obtain full legal rights to work and reside in Ukraine as a foreigner has taken us through the "nine circles of hell." This is a reference to Dante's Inferno and a common Russian/Ukrainian cultural idiom referring to long, drawn-out processes involving much mental misery. For some reason the phrase "7 кругов ада" is much more common than the more correct "9 circles."

Our most recent adventure along the torturous route to allow my wife — a helpless U.S. citizen employed as a "linguistic consultant" (her job title can't include the word "teacher" since education activities require a special permit from the Ukrainian Ministry of Education) — to not only teach Ukrainians the world's business lingua franca legally, but legally reside in Ukraine AND even enjoy the great privilege of being able to leave and re-enter Ukraine legally over the duration of an entire year — yesterday took us to a Ukrainian courthouse.

You see, no one told us during the process of obtaining her precious temporary residency permit that she must get registered within 10 days. We're doing this all without a lawyer because that would cost too much. Two months later, when I had finally jumped through all the hoops to get the necessary paperwork together, I was informed that we were long overdue and would first have to pay a fine determined by the local court. "It's a quick procedure — nothing to worry about," the sympathetic OVIR functionary told me.

First, she gave me two forms that needed to be filled out by the foreigner and landlord, respectively. These would need to be brought back to her during her working hours (just parts of 3 days a week), when she would then tell us the time of our court appearance on the following day. Like, all of us have nothing to do, right? Skipping work at a moment's notice shouldn't be a problem for anyone, should it?

We filled out these papers, giving an explanation of why we had failed to register the foreigner according to article so-and-so of the Constitution of Ukraine. In Ukraine, a Ukrainian citizen or entity needs to bear legal responsibility for those pesky foreigners in case rules are broken. One gets the impression that Ukrainian citizens are supposed to carefully study all relevant Ukrainian legislation before entering into any sort of business interaction with a foreign citizen.

The lady gave us the time of our court appearance on the following day. My wife had to cancel a lesson or two; our landlord, luckily, works on a flexible schedule. The three of us appeared together in front of the court building. A young man walked up at 10:00 and called together all of us who were there for this category of infringement. First we sat down together in the foyer. For each case, the foreigner and the errant landlord had to quickly sign a dozen forms, the contents of which were apparently "pure formalities" of no particular consequence.

Then, we walked up and down the floors of the courthouse a couple times in confusion until we discovered where our appearance was to take place. Then we stood in the hallway and waited for, um, an hour and a half. Finally, our turn came. The courtroom was about 5 meters by 4 meters, and a lady in a robe sat behind a desk, with 3 scribes or something sitting at the other end of the room behind desks. The young man ushered us in, and the lady asked us a few questions, smiled sympathetically at our thinly veiled sarcasm regarding the impossible Ukrainian bureaucracy, and notified us of our fine: the errant landlord would have to pay a fine of 1020 UAH ($125 USD). A rather hefty sum for Ukraine...

From there we went downstairs again and waited till the others had finished. Then the young man told us where to go to get our fingerprints taken the next day (since the process had dragged out longer than he expected). We complained that it was inconvenient to miss another half-day of work to come up here tomorrow, and he agreed to take us over there now according to the original plan.

The police building smelled of mouldy walls and cigarette smoke. My wife covered her nose and stood there with me for another half hour or so. The first naughty foreigner came out after what seemed like an eternity, his hands hopelessly covered in ink. The others had scouted out a bathroom in advance, but there was no soap there, and no hot water or towels (remember those common gripes about Ukraine?). The man spent 10 minutes rubbing the sticky ink off his hands and began to fume. A philosophical discussion about the state of government and the efficacy of protest ensued, with me advocating complaining openly to the personnel and an older lady defending the traditional "keep a low profile" Soviet sheeple approach honed over several generations of repression.

Next it was our turn. My wife, obviously now a potentially dangerous element, was put on the police record by a rude young dimwit in a police uniform, then photographed from several angles. Then he covered her hands in ink and took her prints. I asked where she should wash her hands off. He said the young man who was with us would show us. "He's gone," I answered. It's up a floor, he said. "There's no soap there," I answered. "What can I do about it? We don't have soap, either," he said. We left.

Outside the room, the older lady whispered gleefully that they had found a bathroom on the 3rd floor with a box of soda under a stool in a closet. She said to use it as discretely as possible so that no one got mad and kept the others from using it. We went up there and only found a men's bathroom. So my wife spent 10 minutes rubbing ink off her hands using soda in the men's bathroom. Meanwhile, a couple policemen came in to use the bathroom, looked at us in surprise, but said nothing.

3 hours after arrival, we were finally free.

Our next steps are simple:
  1. pay the fine at a bank, entering our landlord's data
  2. bring the receipt back to the court and figure out who to give it two
  3. come back to the court in 2 weeks to pick up the official court decision during their reception hours
  4. take the court decision to the OVIR during their working hours
Note that here, as in everything, we must personally move all the necessary documents around ourselves, visiting all these offices during working hours, which cut into our own workweek. I wonder how much of Ukraine's GDP is lost because of inefficient dealings with government.

Finally, the OVIR officer will kindly finish off my wife's registration procedure. I think I just have to run to a couple other offices in the OVIR and nearby Passport Counter building in the process. That is, unless something else pops up.

Then, and only then, will my wife be able to freely leave and re-enter Ukraine for the duration of validity of her work permit. Well, that's actually not much time. The work permit was received 6 months ago and it's taken us all these months to perform the subsequent bureaucratic procedures, so if she's lucky she'll have just 5 months to fully enjoy the rights provided through her temporary residency permit. Then, we'll just need to renew everything, get new visas, and a new residency permit with a new registration. With all the valuable experience I've obtained the first time around, this time we can probably do it all in under 100 man-hours.

Needless to say, we will not be getting her a work permit again.

How to Live the tranquil life in Ukraine

As a general rule, the best life in Ukraine is one where you have no dealings with government offices of any kind. Or, you are so high up on the social totem pole that you can have other people take care of all your legal worries or simply have government contacts "settle your matters" for you.

For foreigners this means never registering, never dealing with OVIRs, never signing papers, never getting documents or filling out official forms. The ways to live this peaceful life are several:
  • Spend no more than 90 days in the country out of any 180. Set up a second residence across the Polish border. Take lots of trips out of the country.
  • Get a visa and fail to register, then pay the fine when you leave (quicker and a lot more painless).
  • Get two passports (preferably two citizenships) and switch them upon re-entering the country.
  • Try re-entering the country after leaving after 90 days. Who knows — maybe they'll let you back in!
  • Get rich and pay lawyers to solve your problems. Or work for some official foreign governmental organization with special agreements.
Moral of the story: Ukraine is for visiting, but not for living or business. Legalize activities at your own risk.

Every well-educated Ukrainian over 30 knows that the system is profoundly messed up and needs to be changed completely. Even intelligent government workers will quietly agree when you voice your complaints about the system. But nobody can do anything about it.

I'll bet that even if you grabbed the most notoriously corrupt or mercantilistic Ukrainian oligarch-politician by the gills and demanded he give you his opinion, he would confess that the government system needed to be streamlined and modernized. Ask him what kind of interaction he would like his children to have with Ukrainian government, and he would paint you a picture of a civilized western country where individual rights are respected and government exists to serve the needs of the people.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A 3-Day Trip to Kamianets-Podilskyi

Kamianets-Podilskyi (some write "Kamyanets-Podilskyy") is one of my favorite spots in Ukraine. It's a small town of roughly 100 thousand people with a large old town located on a rocky outcropping surrounded by a scenic bend in the river Smotrych. The approach to the historic town is guarded by one of Ukraine's most expansive fortresses. The old town is gradually undergoing restoration and is a real pleasure to visit. (Ukraine's old historic towns are really beautiful — especially the Polish ones.)

With a 9-hour overnight train ride from Kiev, one can arrive here early in the morning and spend a day, or two, or three enjoying the locale. Not far away are Chernivtsi -- another gem of a city -- and the Khotyn fortress.

Our plan for the trip was to combine work with relaxation. We would need to stay somewhere with Internet in order to spend several hours a day working on our laptops. Seeing that this is Ukraine, we made no plans in advance and decided to just scope out the options along the way. All our stuff packed into two small backpacks, and we dressed warmly. It was -17 C when we arrived...

After stopping by a couple places we settled at "Kseniya" motel behind the fortress for 200 UAH a night for a double room (25 USD). The motel has wi-fi in the reception area and in the restaurant, and it was very convenient to use.

Since it was cold and we had a lot of work to do online, we planned to spend about 4-6 hours a day sightseeing. Kamianets-Podilskyi is perfect for this. One day we focused mostly on the old town, the next day we visited the castle and parts of the old town that we had missed. On the third day we took a minibus to Khotyn and walked down to the fortress — one of Ukraine's most famous. It was a 45 minute walk.

The pace of these towns is much slower than in Ukraine's big cities. There is not a place I would rather visit to get away for a "working holiday" than Kamianets-Podilskyi. And since this is Ukraine, I don't need a car to get there, I don't need to rent a car once I get there, I don't need to book a hotel in advance, and I can figure out everything I need to do on the fly. That is among the greatest advantages of living in Ukraine.

There's also plenty to do besides walk around. One night we went to the "7 Days" hotel for a little jazz concert. I saw a flier for it on a post shortly after we arrived. The entrance fee was 20 UAH (2.50 USD). The evening of our departure we spent a few hours hanging out in the London steak restaurant where there's wi-fi and a wide choice of relatively inexpensive dishes, tea, and coffee. If we'd had time, we probably would have gone bowling at a widely advertised bowling alley in the center.

It turns out there is also a small youth hostel in Kamianets-Podilskyi. I am curious to check it out, but it wasn't the best option for a couple.

Photos from our trip at TryUkraine.com:

Saturday, January 15, 2011

My Biggest Mistake in Ukraine

During my 8+ years in Ukraine I've had plenty of time to make mistakes. What do I regret most of all? Helping my wife (U.S. citizen) get a work permit. Yes, this decision has been the greatest source of stress and negative emotions of anything I have done in Ukraine.

Since my wife doesn't speak Russian or Ukrainian fluently and doesn't understand the system, and because her employer took care of the work permit process only and we are too poor to afford costly legal services oriented towards foreigners working for transnational corporations, I had to take care of the rest of the processes myself.

The result: over 100 man-hours of work, costs (visa, fees, late fines, registration, covering costs for landlord) of upwards of $1000, and continual stress for nearly 9 months as all the steps of this impossibly complicated process played out. I would place a value of roughly $15 per hour of my time, so the total cost of this endeavor has been perhaps $2500. That is, I would not do it again unless you paid me over $2500 to do it.

A Ukrainian work permit is not a good choice for people who do not have the complete support of corporate legal specialists.

Each step of the process leads to another step, the details of which you only find out as you complete the previous step. Each step involving the OVIR or the ZHEK typically requires multiple visits as you first find out the working hours, then who to talk to, then what documents you are lacking, then which things you have done incorrectly, then finally to submit the document/s.

I believe I have been to the city OVIR nearly 10 times for this process, the local ZHEK 5 times, and the rayon OVIR half a dozen times — all for steps of the process that follow receipt of the work permit. That is, getting the work permit is just a fraction of the work involved. The real difficulties come when you get a temporary residency permit and then get the foreigner with the permit registered at a Ukrainian address.

So what do I recommend? Working illegally in Ukraine is a wiser choice for foreigners in the English teaching category than trying to go through the rigamarole of obtaining a work permit and temporary residency.

The fact is, Ukraine desperately needs native teachers of English and other languages (and all the politicians know this, if they have ever given thought to the subject), but absolutely no provisions have been made to allow this to happen. Compare this to Georgia, which now has an official government program to bring native teachers to the country, provide them with housing and a liveable salary, and take care of their organizational worries.

The work permit process — like other bureaucratic business procedures in Ukraine — is designed (whether intentionally or by default) in such a way that only large business structures with lots of capital and legal staff can adhere to them. Everyone else in Ukraine lives outside the law in webs of deceit that make them vulnerable to the whims of government officials, police, etc. Without a doubt, this is the worst part about living in Ukraine, whether you are a native or a foreigner. It's a great reason to emigrate.

The only way out of this web is to be part of a large business structure that provides you with all the appearances of complete legality while taking all the responsibility for deceit upon themselves. For this they have legal staff and government connections that allow them to "settle matters" more efficiently than small businesses or individuals could ever hope to.