Yesterday my wife made arrangements to have a relative watch our two kids while I worked so that she should go to Ukraine’s equivalent of the Department of Motor Vehicles and renew her international driver’s license. She went, and after an hour waiting, she was told to re-take the pictures she had brought, so she went to a nearby photographer, returned, and waited again this time for a little less than an hour. Then they told her the printer was broken, and that she should come back some other day.
I had a similar adventure today, and after back-to-back defeats at the hands of Ukrainian bureaucrats, I do what little I can. I write.
The whole reason I’m currently visiting the in-laws is because I had a long-standing appointment in Kyiv to FINALLY (after six months of trying) get my Ukrainian driver’s license. We planned a week long visit around this appointment to get the driver’s license.
I announced a day off from work well in advance. Early this morning, I drove for two hours accompanied by a contact I nurtured who would help me with the processes. We waited for two hours and told their system was down and wouldn’t be working today, and drove two hour back. They told my contact to call back on Saturday. There was no mention of why they wrote off Thursday and Friday.
I had planned to return to Lviv on Saturday.
This is the dehumanizing, soul destroying reality of Ukrainian bureaucracy. It’s waiting for hours in crowded Soviet style offices with piles of documents on your lap hoping everything is in order. My relatives smile when I relate to them my struggles, not because they enjoy my suffering, but because after a life time of abuse, they’re happy to have a foreigner empathize with them.
“See?” They tell me. “This is why everybody wants to leave. Do you understand now?”
One of my nephews, a very talented artist who dreams of leaving, tells me he was once caught in a perfect contradiction of the kind that only Ukrainian bureaucracy can create: If I understood him correctly, he couldn’t update his residency without a passport, and he could get a passport without an updated residency.
My quest to get a Ukrainian driver’s license began about six months ago. I was pulled over in a cleverly designed speed trap, where the main highway is suddenly designated a residential zone, though there are no building nearby. There was a sign though. Fair enough.
I was told the rules had changed, and American driver’s licenses no longer qualified someone to drive on Ukrainian roads. I paid the speeding ticket – about 250 hryvnias ($10), and a 3500 hryvnia ($140) fine for driving without a license.
Knowing the predatory nature of Ukrainian bureaucracy, I always try to find a sympathetic insider before approaching any government institution. In this case, I found through some relatives a former high ranking police official who can contacts in Ukraine’s equivalent of the department of transportation. He wanted to hang out a bit before we began, so I spent a pleasant evening with min his yard, drinking beer, grilling shashlynk, and late in the evening even singing.
I asked him three times, both by phone and during our evening whether I needed to pay for these service. I didn’t use the word “bribe”, but it was obvious that’s what I meant. He told me emphatically that I did not.
Eventually, he told me everything was set, and gave the contact, and I called the contact, and received, somewhat impatiently, instructions how to proceed.
What followed were SEVEN visits to a department of motor vehicles. Each was book-ended by an hour of travel. Also, I would arrive a half hour early or more to reserve a place in line, then wait for the place to open, then elbow my way to a ticket in the order that people showed up, and wait for the ticket number to be called. Since I always showed up well before opening, I never had to wait more than about 45 minutes to get called.
1st visit – general review of documents. One of the translations needed to be notarized.
2nd visit – I returned the same day with a notarized translations, instead of a normal translation. I was surprised when he simply asked to return in about a week. There was some process that needed to happen.
3rd visit – The third visit was infuriating. I went to the trouble to traveling there, claiming a place in line, etc, just to be told that I needed some additional materials. Apparently, he was unable to verify that my American driver’s license was legitimate. He could have easily told me this over the phone – but they always surprise you with problems at the last minute. I’ve been warned that this twisting of the knife is how Ukrainian bureaucrats try to get you to offer a bribe, but I remembered the guidance of the ex-police officer and bit my tongue.
He told me to get some proof from the US embassy that my driver’s license was legitimate. I explained that the embassy doesn’t do any such thing. Licenses are done state by state. He shrugged the typical shrug of a Ukrainian bureaucrat – “That’s our system,” he said. Nothing is every the bureaucrat’s fault. He told me to get something, even a notarized statement.
I tried to explain to him the extreme stupidity of this. The notary at the embassy will notarize ANY statement. The notary confirms the authenticity of a signature. That’s it. It means nothing about the validity of a statement, or legitimacy of an American driver’s license.
“That’s our system,” he said. I need something. So, thinking I was receiving a coded message, I asked if I needed to pay for these services, but he waved his arms as if my question was utterly absurd.
I made an appointment at the US embassy, which had a month long waiting list at the time. I returned to Lviv to continue running my IT business and returned in a month, first to visit the embassy in Kyiv, which is itself a long procedure to pass through security. Then I made my next trip.
4th visit – He was very pleased by the notarized statement. Everything was set. “Now just give me your medical exam, and we’ll make your license.” He seemed irritated that I didn’t have, never heard of, and never even thought about a special medical exam for a driver’s license.
I made another trip to Kyiv (2 hours each way), and received my medical exam – which was a completely fake procedure. You pay money, and they pretend to examine you and give you a piece of paper with a stamp.
5th visit – He accepted the medical exam, and then sent me to another office to pay the fee for my license. He told me not to wait in line again after paying, which I appreciated. When I returned with the receipt, he took my photograph, and as often happens with Ukrainian bureaucracy, my goal seemed very, very close, almost imminent.
It’s probably an exaggeration to call this deliberate sadism, though it certainly seems that way. Next, he showed me to a computer and told me all I had to do now was take an exam.
I thought the whole point of me verifying (or pretending to verify) my US driver’s license was to prove myself a qualified driver. That’s how it works in the US — you can get an international driver’s license with your existing driver’s license. You just pay a fee and fill out an application. You can even do it by mail without making multiple visits to some hellish, crumbling Soviet style office.
“That’s our system,” he shrugged.
I asked him why he hadn’t told me about this, and again he told me that that’s their system.
I was Sisyphus, and the boulder had just rolled down the hill again.
“I will not pass an exam in Ukrainian,” I said. “Can I take it in English?”
He said I could. It turned out that selecting English only changed the labels on the buttons to English: “okay” / “next question” / “cancel”.
The content remained Ukrainian. He telephone somebody to ask questions, and said he had an American who needed to take the exam in English, and he talked about what a stupid broken system they have. When he got off the phone, he continued telling me about their stupid broken system, but said there was no other option.
The test continues until you get three questions wrong. I had a hard time reading technical terms, and made it to about question number eight of twenty. From what I hear, the test is even difficult for native Ukrainians to pass.
He told me to come back in a few days. From his earlier complaining about their system, and from his tone of voice I got the impression that her take the test for me, or find some work around.
6th visit – Inexplicably, I had to take the test in Ukrainian again. When I asked him why he was wasting my time, he said something about the ex-police officer indicating some dispute between them. It was something like “you tell your friend that he needs to start acting like a human being,” as if I’m supposed to know what the hell that means.
Ukrainian bureaucracy has been so incredibly disorienting. Neither doing everything I was told, nor trying to offer a bribe as my relatives insist is the only way seemed to work for me. I didn’t know if this was incompetence, or if he was angry at the ex-police chief and taking it out one me, or if he was speaking to me in coded language that I should offer a bribe in some different way, even after he waved off my suggestion that I pay for services.
The point for foreigners is that you have to work very hard just to get on with life in Ukraine.
Inexplicably, he asked me to return in a few days. I asked what would be different, and he said something vague like “we’ll see.”
I needed to return to Lviv to refocus on my business, and we had vacation planned to the United States.
Frustrated, demoralized, and dejected, I did not return, but looked for an alternative plan to get a Ukrainian driver’s license. I found another contact of my wife’s family who had helped other people get their driver’s licenses. However as I had an in-process application at a different department, I need to cancel it
7th visit – After we returned from our vacation to the United States, I made a last trip to that god-forsaken Soviet little bureaucracy, this time with my wife. She cut the line, and told the manager she needed to cancel an application for her foreigner husband. The manager, without seeing me or asking her to name her husband, waddled to the cabinet and retrieved my file. It had been about four months since I’d started it. He returned some documents, and asked for a statement about cancelling the process, which my wife wrote and I signed.
Today was a visit to a separate department, coordinated by a separate insider. I wasted six hours. Four of them driving, and two of them waiting. Their system was down. They asked to call back on Saturday without explaining why Thursday or Friday were out of the question.
So that’s where I am.
All I want to do is drive legally in Ukraine, as I did for eight years before the laws were changed. After six months of trying and wasting countless hours, I have nothing to show for my efforts.
Perhaps I made a mistake by even trying to get a Ukrainian driver’s license as the police man who gave me that speeding ticket six months ago told me I needed to do. Perhaps during my vacation in America, I could have just applied for an international driver’s license and that would have covered my needs.
But the point it – why are such mistakes possible? And why should it be a mistake?
The types of people Ukraine wants to attract and retain will not be willing to live under this dystopian bureaucracy.
I’m not even sure if I should return and try again if I get the go-ahead on Saturday. After nine years in Ukraine, I bought one way tickets for myself and my family to the US. We made this difficult decision (and it was difficult) in October, before the tensions with Russia went crazy, and now I hate the feeling of abandoning Ukraine, or failing to stand up to Russia the bully.
Update: On Saturday, my contact called me and said I could try again on Tuesday or Wednesday. I decided to follow through with plans to return to Lviv to resume packing.
Even if I did take an additional day off from work, and even their systems did not go down again, and even if I pass through their hoops and qualify for a driver’s license, I’m worried they wouldn’t be able to give me one because of fresh problems with my residency (see below). This is best part yet!
After living in Ukraine for NINE years, Ukraine will not renew my Residency Permit. I have a “permanent” residency which requires only a one time renewal which should have happened this year.
Just to get to the point where my renewal was rejected took over 40 interactions. I recorded each one as a civics lesson, and perhaps I’ll list them in a separate blog post. For example:
* wait in line to be told to come back another day
* get sent to a different office to review documents
* have him refer me to a different office
* go somewhere else to fill out and submit the form to pay the penalty
* have my finger prints taken in one office on the second floor
* later the same day, have my finger prints taken on the first floor (the nice lady apologized for the absurdity, saying, as always: “that’s our system”)
* go to the bank to pay a penalty for applying for renewal several months late
In total there were FORTY interaction. They bounce you around like a ping pong ball.
And the reward for such determined effort: my renewal was rejected.
I had received the permit in 2013 based on the fact that my mother was born in Ukraine. In fact, both my parents were born in Ukraine, but Ukraine’s ministry of immigration wouldn’t accept American naturalization documents which specified them as being from Ukraine. No, that would be too easy. I spent six month scouring Ukrainian archives, and being horribly abused by Ukrainian bureaucrats. Eventually I received the residency based on my finding documents about my mother’s Christening, the only trace left from those chaotic, turbulent times into which my parents were borns.
Well, nine years later, I cannot renew my residency because my mother was Christened “Maria-Ivanna”, and on all the American documents which prove that she’s my mother, she dropped the secondary name and appears only as “Maria”. Her birth date is the same. Her maiden name is there on her marriage certificate. Everything lines up, except for the double name on her Christening.
I cannot imagine the mindset of the bureaucrat who scours documents to find such minuscule, irrelevant errors. I’m biased by my frustration, but it’s hard for me to imagine it being anything other than extreme sadism or extreme stupidity.
It’s fashionable to discuss Ukraine’s bureaucracy and corruption in terms of attracting foreign investment or productive foreigners. I believe President Zelensky has talked about trying to get diaspora Ukrainians to live and do business in Ukraine. Pro tip: don’t kick out the ones already here who are trying to stay.
I’ll note that some modest improvements have been made – I don’t meet as many rude bureaucrats as I used to. The ones in the Lviv Immigration office were especially helpful, showing great patience, and offering advice everywhere they could. This is a vast improvement from the outright abuse I suffered in 2012 and 2013 when I first received my residency.
While the context of foreigners and foreign investment is relevant to bureaucratic reform, it’s a bit of a shame to prioritize it. Bureaucratic reform should, first and foremost, be discussed in the context of unlocking the considerable potential of Ukrainians. There’s tremendous talent here trying to bloom.
How many businesses were never created? How many beautiful things never materialized because people were too demoralized? How many projects were never attempted? How many workdays were wasted sitting in those horrible offices with stacks of documents on people’s laps? How many hours were never spent relaxing? How many talented Ukrainians fled this madness as soon as they got the chance?
Yes, save Ukraine from Russian, but save Ukraine from itself too.