Wednesday, March 03, 2010

New Ukrainian column

I have started a regular column for the excellent Ukrainian weekly Tyzhden. Here is the first one (with a link here to the Ukrainian version)

“Dokumenty pazhaluista”

(What can Europe do to help Ukraine? And what can Ukraine do to help itself?)

Given the amount of time and money European Union countries have spent advising Ukraine on the reform of public administration, it is shocking and shameful that their own consulates in Kyiv and elsewhere epitomise the problem, rather than advertising the solution. It may not be possible to convince voters in the EU that Ukrainians should have visa-free access immediately. But it should certainly be possible to provide the visas in an efficient, polite, honest and open way. The current system offers no real obstacle to people-smugglers and crooks, while imposing huge and humiliating burdens on the ordinary decent people wanting to visit for work, pleasure or study. It is a scandal that it is far easier for a citizen of Turkey to get a visa for the Schengen zone than it is for a citizen of Ukraine.

I would like to see the Ukrainian media and NGOs attack this problem head-on, providing a detailed ranking of the consulates in terms of convenience of opening hours, politeness of staff, speed of service and use of modern technology. Those that make people queue on the streets in sub-zero temperatures will come bottom. Those that use the internet intelligently, and treat applicants as honoured guests, rather than lying nuisances, will come top. Imagine the shock if it turns out that the best service comes from China, say, or Egypt, rather than the arbiters of good government in the EU and North America.

The next stage should be to present the findings to those in charge of the consular services with the question (asked politely of course) what they intend to do to improve their ranking and when. Then follow-up the exercise at six-monthly intervals and see which promises are matched with action and which prove to be just empty words. Transparency and accountability are fine things and the EU and America are right to preach them. But they are even more effective when those who preach them also practise them.

An important feature of this exercise is that Ukrainians would no longer be the supplicants, patiently waiting for outsiders to give them things. Instead, Ukrainians would be saying: “we are the people of one of the largest countries in Europe. We may be poor and badly led, but we also choices about how we spend our time and money, about where we work and study, or buy and sell. If you want our attention, show us some respect”. That is not a message that the rest of Europe has heard before. It would be good to deliver it.

At the same time, of course, Ukraine needs to improve its own image.

I am rather sceptical of the portentous discussion about “foreign policy orientation”. In the end, image follows reality, and so long as the reality of Ukraine is of a country run by the provincial Soviet nomenklatura and their business chums, the bad image will be hard to shift. The more Ukraine imitates the corruption and incompetence of the Russian system, the closer it will become to Russia. And the more it adopts western-style public administration, the closer it will come to the world’s richest and happiest countries.

The election result may mean that big changes are off the agenda. But small steps can be effective too. Too take one example, familiar to foreigners but probably not to Ukrainians themselves, examine the “landing card” issued to foreigners on inbound flights. This is, in effect, Ukraine’s visiting card: it may be the first official document that outsiders encounter.

It is a strikingly shoddy affair. I could almost believe that it was designed by Modest Kolerov, or some other sinister Kremlin spin-doctor, aiming to damage Ukraine in the eyes of the world. For a start, it is not a card. It is printed on the cheapest possible paper—so grey, rough, flimsy and absorbent that it almost has curiosity value. The instructions are incomprehensible. The print is tiny. The applicant must fill in details, letter by letter, in tiny boxes seemingly designed to produce illegibility. If you get it wrong, you are shouted at by a man in uniform.

What is so odd is that this ghastly effort is not some bureaucratic fossil from the Soviet days, but something fairly new. A committee of officials must have debated its design, wording and production, and solemnly decided that this was the best possible option. Given the way that Ukraine works, their decision was probably signed off at quite a high level. I don’t exclude the possibility of corruption—perhaps the contract was given to a design bureau and printing house that skimmed off the contract, and then did the cheapest possible job. But it would be nice to know. I would suggest a public competition for Ukraine’s best designers to produce a rival version, which would have typography, clarity and quality to lift spirits rather than sink them.

The existing dismal document is worth contrasting with the similar form used by foreigners entering the United States. This is printed on high-quality white card. The instructions are exemplary. And a small line of print at the bottom, citing the “Paperwork reduction act” passed by Congress, even tells you how many minutes it should take to fill the form in. That sends a powerful message about America: it is a country where lawmakers bestir themselves to save their constituents time, and where public agencies pride themselves (at least sometimes) on doing a good professional job.

These two ideas won’t change Ukraine overnight. But they will foster two important kinds of confidence. One is the confidence to complain when badly treated. The other is confidence innovate when something is not working well. Both are the hallmarks of a society where the state is a partner, not a parasite. That change is long overdue in Ukraine.


Anonymous said...

Kudos on this excellent piece. Visas and humano-centric policies matter a great deal in the region, and the U.S. and the EU have failed miserably on this. While BMD, NATO accession and energy security are important issues, it has completely hijacked the agenda, both for EU and U.S. relations with Poland and Ukraine.

As you mentioned in your previous article, Poland's economy is growing yet we've spent the past 5 years chattering about missile defense, when all that Poles want is visa free travel to the U.S. NATO accession for Ukraine, a non-starter in many ways, matters more in the political and identity discourse then it does for security, yet we continue to beat the drum on it. Maybe Ukrainians would actually support NATO if they could easily visit NATO countries.

Unknown said...


Just for information, some EU NGOs are working on the topic. Here is a report about which EU state consulates are better, which worse, and in what categories. It concerns EU consulates in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova.

It would be perfect to find partners in those Eastern-European countries and really follow an intensive and "posledovatelnaja" campaign.

We will be addressing Czech officials on this issue, since I represent a Czech NGO.

Good luck to all of us on it! :)

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your piece about Ukraine. It's great news to me to see that you are doing this.

Recently, I lost a very near and dear friend to cancer. He was good investigative reporter who wrote hundreds of articles about Ukraine, it's people, its struggle for freedom and justice and about its struggle with crime and corruption.

Besides being a good writer, he was a very funny man who loved anecdotes, a man dedicated to his son, his friends, his principles and his work and he was an excellent cook.

Roman was buried in Arlington three weeks ago. He was like a brother to me. He will be missed dearly by many good people and hated by a few kleptocrats and reptiles back in Ukraine.

One such rat, has crawled out of the woodwork again denying having had anything to do with Gongadze's death, defending his old friend Krawchenko and blaming the whole affair on Roman.

Imagine that, what a surprise. The kleptocrat and rodent is upset and his feelings are hurt.

What more can I say. It should prove to be an interesting decade for Ukraine and it's people.

It proves to be a very different Ukraine than the one Roman would liked to have seen. Its leaders should be given a chance to change. However, knowing most of hopes aren't high.

Keep up the good work. I enjoy your writing style.