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.


  1. You should have included the part where the lawyer told me I need a shorter signature because I was taking too long to sign my name 15 times.

  2. Очень точные наблюдения. Все правда. Со всем согласна. Печально все это...

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