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» Society » Bureaucracy in Ukraine, Russia, and the Former USSR

Bureaucracy in Ukraine, Russia, and the Former USSR

Last update: Aug. 7, 2010 (article created)

Foreigners usually have little or nothing to do with Ukraine's infamous bureaucratic system until they try to establish some long-term resident status, personal property, or business activity in Ukraine. With any of these come long lists of documents to be submitted, and it's all up to you to figure out how to get them.

Ukrainian bureaucracy: multiple time-consuming trips in person

Government offices rarely have phone numbers where you can expect to get answers over the phone; therefore, you usually must appear in person during office hours, which may be just a few hours a week. There may or may not be a line to the office or window you are seeking, and if you don't reach the front of the line by the end of office hours, you're out of luck. Often, it takes 3 or 4 visits to get answers to your questions. Here is a typical example involving the Kiev OVIR:
Trip #1: go to OVIR to find out office hours.
Trip #2: go to OVIR to ask your question and find out that another office deals with your issue. Got to this office to find out the office hours.
Trip #3: go to the second office to ask your question, only to discover that the worker refuses to provide you with the information you need if you don't show her document originals (as opposed to xerox copies) for the matter you wish to inquire about.
Trip #4: go once more to the office with originals and finally receive a consultation about the steps necessary to move forward.
If each office has office hours three days a week, it's easy to see how it could easily take a week and a half to get from step 1 to step 4.

Ukrainian bureaucracy: no communication between offices

In Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, each administrative office performs just a few procedures, and there are no systems in place to perform complex procedures involving multiple government offices. Therefore, the soliciter must take this function upon himself and go around to all the different offices collecting documents in one place, bringing them to another and another, then returning to the first office to get a stamp, etc. etc.
For instance, instead of simply entering your taxpayer code into forms as you do in the U.S. and other countries (i.e. the Social Security Number), in Ukraine you will need to constantly present copies (sometimes notarized, sometimes not, and sometimes the original only) of the original taxpayer code certificate. If you happen to lose it, you'll need to the state office and present another set of documents to have a new certificate issued (with the same number), which takes time. In other words, instead of simply looking up your number in a database to check that you're indeed a registered taxpayer, government offices require a document confirming that the taxpayer number was indeed issued. Obviously, this procedure is from the days before computers and databases.
The basic logic of government requirements is usually sound. For instance, when someone wants to reside permanently in Ukraine, the government would like to know that the person does not carry dangerous diseases, is not a criminal, has a place to live and sufficient means to support themselves, and that they have a taxpayer's identification number. These are standard and reasonable demands.
The problem is that no procedure has been established to facilitate this process. You'll need to figure out where to get each supporting document and carry each original of them to the OVIR in person, because there is no electronic database or connection between offices. Once you've done all the work, your documents will then be carefully filed away in a paper folder, never to be seen again. If you ever need to do a related procedure in the future, you'll have to start again at square one and procure all the documents once more for submission and filing.

Ukrainian bureaucracy: rude, uncooperative, and depressed staff

Even after dealing with Ukrainian bureaucracy for years, foreigners may still be baffled at the behavior they routinely encounter. Only about a third of staff are basically friendly and relaxed and have a "normal" interaction style. The other two-thirds are unhappy to see you, unable to understand questions unless they are brief, precisely framed, and use official terminology, and they do things to demean and defeat their visitors such as:
  • giving people commands they obviously won't understand, repeating them when the person gets flustered, and then getting angry at the person and shoo them out of their office
  • looking for any little thing to take issue with in documents being submitted, even down to using the wrong kind of paper sheath, thus making the visitor worry to the last moment whether his documents will actually be accepted
  • yelling at visitors standing in line in hallways for things like standing in front of important doors or not waiting in the waiting room, even though there is actually no convenient place to wait in line

Where does this behavior come from?

It appears that most staff (90% women) are chronically depressed and have low self-esteem. Their pay is low, they are under constant pressure from their predominantly male bosses with authoritarian management styles, and they despise their work and dread visitors because of all the work they have to do because of them. Making visitors feel flustered, helpless, and subservient is one of their only ways of feeling powerful and important.
It's no wonder that so many Ukrainians are "allergic" to government and do everything they can to avoid dealing with official bodies.

Ukrainian bureaucracy: big structures win, individual interests lose

"Surely there must be a point to this system," some people ask themselves after dealing with post-Soviet bureaucracy. To answer this question, we need to go back in history a bit. Post-Soviet bureaucracies were inherited from the Soviet Union, where they were originally established to serve a specifically Soviet purpose: to discourage individual initiative and strengthen official power structures.
Life in the Soviet Union was organized in such a way as to make administration as simple as possible. People were given standard life algorithms that were easily manageable by the state. Any deviation from the standard path entailed bureaucratic problems for the individual. Moving from the countryside to the city or even from one apartment to another was bureaucratically difficult. Changing career paths was bureaucratically difficult. Organizing any sort of new activity on one's own was bureaucratically difficult.
This is the system that Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, and the other CIS countries inherited with the fall of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. While some elements have been changed or introduced that allow for some individual activity, in Ukraine the basic bureaucratic structure has not chanced. Procedures continue to favor official structures and discourage individual activity, initiative, and mobility. With the beginning of capitalism, commercial structures have grown up in the CIS countries. The more powerful ones have the resources to give and take favors from government and to hire lawyers to handle their legal relations with government bodies and "make sure everything is in order."
Smaller commercial entities and entrepreneurs don't have the resources to easily manage complicated bureaucratic procedures. They must themselves become experts and waste large amounts of their own time dealing with government offices. What is easy for a big business to resolve may be very hard for a small business to resolve. Many entrepreneurial types just throw in the towel and go to work for a large structure so that they don't have to deal with bureaucracy. Many others move into the shadow economy and keep a low profile and avoid expanding their business too much. The effect is that small business in Ukraine and Russia keeps failing to develop, while big business grows progressively more powerful and monopolistic.
Consciously or not, for some reason these countries choose to continue to sacrifice labor productivity and ultimately decreased GDP in order to maintain this system. Some nations of the former Soviet Union still rank near the top of the list of countries where the most man-hours per capita are spent on bureaucratic procedures.