Don’t ask why!
In this episode of Великое посольство (‘The other way around’) I am showing some examples of public administration of the post-Soviet spaces. Since before the times of Peter the Great, Russia has gained a notoriety for its inefficiency and corruption. Peter the Great believed that learning from the West by reforming public administration would help Russia take a huge leap towards industrializing, reducing corruption and gaining efficiency. In contrast with former rulers of Russia, Peter influenced almost every aspect of Russian life. He modernized the Russian army while also implementing a lot of new legislation. In spite of reforms, old stigmas about Russian public administration, corruption, and efficiency prevail even today. To what extent are these stigmas consistent with reality, with the lives and experiences of students and visitors to Russia? Allow me to share some experiences and some hilarious moments from the past two years to illustrate differences in how the West and the East perceive bureaucracy and public administration.
I finished my Bachelors in public administration in 2014, but just a year before doing so I had the opportunity to go for half a year to Kazakhstan. The land is infamous due to Borat, although I feel the infamy is now undeserved. Kazakhstan was, in fact, a perfect introduction to a post-Soviet state.
Most students that have applied for a foreign exchange know that studying aborad is accompanied by many logistical aspects, like applying for housing, getting insurance for multifarious purposes, and last but not least applying for a visa. I have to admit that the Kazakh administration has undergone a lot of changes since my visit. These changes include allowing the top 10 investing countries to have a visa-free stay for up to 2 weeks. However, when I applied for visa in 2013, things were slightly different. To apply for a Kazakh visa, you have to show a medical certificate, which states that you do not have HIV or Aids. On the one hand a country is free to ask so, but why do you have to undergo another aids test in Kazakhstan again and pay for it additionally, after you have already proven you do not have any medical implications before entering the country? This feature of having to do things twice recurs frequently, such as having not one stamp but two stamps on your paper, showing your documents to two, three or even more persons to prove you are at the correct place at the correct time. The way to deal with this is simple: don’t ask why and just go along with it. Accept situations like having to spend time in distant medical centres where the hygiene could pose a greater threat than testing whether you have any medical problems, or having to chase multiple offices to get your documents right. This is just the legacy from the Soviet Union in most post-Soviet countries.
When I arrived in Russia a year later, on many occasions I have asked myself why things are the way they are. For instance, why is a lady seated at the escalator in the metro station? Why does the metro kick everyone out at the metro station ‘Universitet’, only to later on fill up again in another train? Why is there a city and a country registration? Why is finding the right person for dealing with paperwork so complicated? The Dutch journalist Gerbrand Jan Corstius has explained in his book ‘Russia for the Advanced’ that there are two main reasons for not asking the why question in Russia: first of all you will probably not get a clear answer to the question; second, Russia (like other post-Soviet countries) is a treasure chest of such ‘why’ questions. Having all the answers is both fruitless and impossible. One should approach Russia as an adventure instead. Understanding Russia, like most journalists say, is just impossible, and maybe that makes it all the more intriguing. This is why when some of my Dutch friends came to visit me in Russia, I immediately told them that asking why things are the way they are is a recipe for frustration, so that they could begin to embrace the mysteries of Russia.
It is interesting to wonder how bureaucracy and corruption color the lives of foreign students in Russia. Although I haven’t personally experienced corruption first-hand, I have heard stories about having to bribe officers. While this is often the case for people who violate (traffic) rules, I suppose there would be a few other cases as well. Suprrise frisking in Moscow for foreigners also seems to have reduced of late. But what about bureaucracy in Russia?
In the Netherlands, public administration follows the principle of ‘Good Governance’. Good governance has to be taken literally, but since governance can sometimes not do the right things it is rather a personal and moral question than one simple answer. Through a system of checks and balances and formal and informal responsibility, this ‘good governance’ has been made operational. In the end it remains an ambiguous concept, because in the end who decides what is good governance? Perhaps the most important aspect is that rules, institutions and administrative processes are perfectly transparent to citizens. In case the government or the public organisation makes a mistake, you can either fight them directly, or via the checks and balances system. Does Russia too follow the principle of good governance?
As a foreigner, it is often easy to criticise a system or an outcome that you’re not accustimed to. For instance, every time I return to Russia, I have to register myself in the city like every other foreigner. The problem however was that once, I exceeded the deadline by one day – not the deadline of registration itself, but the deadline of the university. The registration office gave me two options: either go to a hotel tonight and register there or leave the country. Sounds quite drastic, right? Well, as with many such situations, I just had to go with it. Although, in Russia, rules can often be bent for the better, there is little or no such possibility in official registrations. This little mishap led to numerous difficulties including have to register in a hotel or even leave the country, or possibly incur a fine. Such scenarios occur not only with registration, but also with getting documents such as medical certificates, grade list, visa invitation letters that bureaucracy often goes ways you do not expect it to go. It either takes a long time or visits to multiple places to get it all done. Supervision of these institutions remains infrequent or ineffective. The question remains, is this good or bad governance? For the Dutchman, this is bad governance; although I’ve become inclined to wonder if this is simply ineffecient governance, since I got all my documents in the end after all. Then again, is inefficient governance equatable with bad governance?