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I have a fear of state institutions…

While writing an article about foreigners and Polish public offices together with my friend from Ukraine, I decided to show how Ukrainian public office workers treat their customers. A rhetorical question asked by me friend working for a non-governmental organisation gives an idea of what dealing with administrative matters means for Poles: “Is it also so difficult to do anything in public offices there in Ukraine?”

Anything that concerns dealing with administrative matters creates negative emotions in most of people. Such is also the attitude of many, if not all, foreigners who come to Poland. I will not write, however, about what waits in store for them in Poland; I will write about the Ukrainian experience which has shaped the consciousness and beliefs also of those who begin new lives in new countries with a negative attitude towards public offices.

And the ever-helpful Janusz Weiss from the first channel of the Polish radio, always striking a chord with the spirit of the times with his programme “Everything you don’t know and are not afraid to ask” addressed to a Polish citizen in a public office (and here comes this fear again…).

Administrative matters in Ukraine

In one scene in the excellent 1962 Ukrainian feature film The Gas Station Queen (Koroleva Benzokolonki), two friends, Galushka and Borshch, quarrel over which one of them should renovate a bridge. Quarreling so fiercely and for so long, they lose cautiousness and fall into the river. Some time has passed since the first screenings of the film… Now we’re into the 21st century, but the red tape continues to hold lengthy debates over matters of utmost importance (of utmost importance certainly only for itself), following in the footsteps of the aforementioned friends.   

The moves made by office workers resemble an endless football match, where the citizen plays the role of a ball while the nosy office worker with a nasty grin uses his body language to say “you won’t get anything” and adds in mind (or sometimes aloud in slightly different words)  “get out of my sight right now.” You can’t change the rules of the game, in which the office worker sends the customer from office to office; nor is it possible to prove the fault of the state official because the court, which should be an arbiter in a well functioning state, is in a state of degradation as if after a nuclear explosion.  

Ten years ago I worked as an assistant to the director of a sushi catering start-up. After less than 6 months, our business became a place of daily meetings of the fire service, sanitary and epidemiological service and tax militia. What was the reason? We had gone into the fish business, in which everything is “occupied and bought out.” Several similar circus performances which I not only witnessed but also took part in discouraged me from working  in a senior position in any food-processing establishment in the capital of Ukraine. My self-preservation instinct told me not to follow the routes that cross with state institutions. In a better case, this will ruin your health; in a worse case – this will crush you.

It took me seven years to get rid of these reservations and a banal, but real, fear of the magnitude  of the state apparatus. Even now that I conduct my own small business against all odds, I have to struggle with neurosis, wondering whether my dear motherland will start to rearrange the pieces of this jigsaw called the Ukrainian tax system, to which I have already got accustomed. I have fears not because I don’t want my country to change; I just want these changes to be irreversible and want the rules for businesses to be stable and equal. But for the time being one is still looking in legislative acts, served with a sauce of “improvements” so to speak, for mechanisms aimed at swindling us, small entrepreneurs. How could it be otherwise? The system has taught us to do so! But not only the authorities in the capital are so audacious. You should just go out of the city.

I met a friend who shared with me his experience of collecting documents concerning the property that had already been in his possession.  

“That resembled a fairy tale – go God knows where, bring God knows what…  First of all, you had to collect a bagful of documents, including a certificate issued by a specific branch of the Savings Union bank in the village of Vasylkiv in the Kiev Oblast, in which in the 1950s my late parents were given an installment loan for the purchase of building materials for the construction of a house.  

The bank clerks were dumbfounded at the strange demands made by the office workers. It is hard to describe those feelings. All debts on such loans were repaid long time ago or remitted as early as in the 1960s. But I got some piece of paper.”

Another friend of mine, a notary public, came up against similar difficulties. In the district where he lives, an office worker sees customers once a week at given hours. A long queue of people – similar to those in front of Lenin’s mausoleum at the heyday of the USRR, builds up.  “His professional competences are definitely not sufficient for the tasks he carries out. Instead of the village of Kożuchiwka, he wrote Kalyniwka. I have to be cautious as never before.”

The most “fascinating” situations occur when an average citizen decides to document, in accordance with the procedures, the privatisation of land or real estate on his own.  He enters the folk game „find your documents.” An application submitted to the district office goes to the regional administration, then to the provincial authorities and then … somewhere else, for sure. But it is virtually impossible to keep track of where your application goes; as my friend says: “no one knows anything; everyone sends you elsewhere, as far as possible, because the case is outside his remit. In order to get to any office, you have to take a place in a queue as early as at four in the morning and wait in the queue only to learn that it is not the right room. When I went into hysterics and threw a tantrum because I couldn’t find my application with documents that I had been collecting for a long time, the office workers politely advised me to go to  a commercial organisation that deals with similar cases. The organisation was anointed by the district office. I paid a fee of 3,000 hryvnias and was promised that the case would be dealt with within a year. And so it was.”

The state system was created in such a way as to make an average citizen want to run far, far away when confronted with it. The system works for itself and for those within in, not for an individual, a citizen, an inhabitant. Hence corruption, lawlessness, cronyism, nepotism and other “attractions” of the Ukrainian red tape.

By two Ukrainian women

Written down, translated and commented by Marija Jakubowycz

Translation into English: Anna Orzechowska