Oil and Vinegar: An American in post-Soviet Ukraine

My friend once called her American passport “the blue protection”, and frankly much of the time it does seem to have uncanny powers. It repels particularly grouchy border guards, who often avoid asking me questions about my intentions in their country – presumably because we Americans have a reputation for not knowing foreign languages. On another occasion, when I forgot my immigration card crossing from Ukraine into Hungary, I was threatened with an enormous fine, but not actually made to pay it.

Since I’ve traveled mostly in Eastern Europe, I can’t speak of the reactions an American passport may elicit in other parts of the world. What I am certain of, however, is that an American passport is like oil to the vinegar that is post-Soviet bureaucracy.

The first drop of vinegar – a taste of bureaucracy

I work for a major Russian investment bank in Kyiv, which along with every other financial institution that made it insanely rich after the collapse of the Soviet Union has cleaned up its image. Envelopes have been abandoned for Mastercard and Visa payment cards. So were the creative ways of sidestepping bureaucracy to employ foreigners replaced by the thorough and exhaustive pursuit of the myriad documents needed to legally work in Ukraine.

Two years ago, I decided to accept a job at a Russian bank. Honestly, I had no idea what I was getting into. Upon becoming the research editor, I was told that we had to first secure my work permit before I could be paid. Makes sense, but what they needed were things that Americans just do not carry around with them, such as notarized copies of university diplomas. As mine were sent to my parents’ house in the U.S. upon the completion of my master’s degree, they too were drawn into this arduous process along with the honorary Ukrainian consul, and his father who would ultimately act as a courier.

The diplomas were a part of the evidence our legal team was gathering to take to the Ministry of Labor, which had to be persuaded that no Ukrainian had the skills for my position at the bank. I thought this was reasonable and a piece of cake given that I was a native speaker of English.

A puzzling array of documents

The honorary consul had to notarize the copies of my diplomas, which, again, sounds relatively simple but turned out not to be. My father acted immediately and drove the copies to the honorary consul, who informed him that Ukrainian law requires notarization by the Apostille method. This apparently entails sending copies of my diplomas first to my university for verification, then to the requisite state body for secondary verification, after which the honorary consul could notarize them.

Plying the bureaucrats

As the weeks passed, my bank account dwindled. Then came the next piece of good news. The committee that issues work permits only meets twice a month, and my diplomas had not arrived in time. We decided to risk it with scanned copies.

Thus, six weeks after I started working at the bank, our lawyers trudged over to the committee with scanned copies of my diplomas, my course history at university, my resume, and anything else they deemed necessary to make my case – that I was uniquely qualified to be an English language editor in Ukraine.

They returned glum and puzzled. My case had been rejected by the committee.

The formal reason was that the bank had a translator (!) on staff, and had failed to issue a proper vacancy for her position, making my position redundant. The informal reason was that although my employer had come to the ministry bearing gifts (as is the norm apparently), another committee member caught wind of my case and thought that he too should be persuaded with chocolates and cognac, and most probably an envelope of some kind.

Completely broke and in tears, I left our general director’s office later that day assured that this situation would be resolved before I left for the holidays. And thankfully it was! Our formidable boss made sure that I went home for Christmas with a paycheck.

The end is near, but not soon enough

Although by far the most important step, this was just the beginning. Upon my return from Christmas break, I had to collect further documents for the all important registration at OVIR (Office of Visas and Registration). I had to involve my landlord, who filled out a form confirming that he has allowed me to live in his apartment and then went to the local “zhek” for the necessary signatures and stamps. My landlord has already been there twice and is gearing up for a third visit.

The OVIR stamp is a curious one. It illustrates just how confused the legislation is when it comes to Westerners wanting to work in Ukraine. The government introduced a visa-free regime for Americans in 2005 that allows us to stay in Ukraine for up to 90 days without a visa. If one intends to stay longer for the purposes of employment or residency then a visa is required. Regardless of the intentions, one must register at OVIR, a vestigial procedure from another era the purpose of which is still not clear to me.

With the OVIR stamp alone, you are registered, but have to leave Ukraine every 90 days, essentially to refresh your timecard. With an OVIR stamp and a visa, you can stay until your work permit expires. The institutions coming up with these regulations exist in parallel and clearly have not yet coordinated their efforts to introduce a system that makes sense. As such, my IM-1 visa is SINGLE ENTRY. At $165, this is a rather expensive one-use document.

Thankfully, this saga has one more chapter. Apparently, another trip to OVIR is in order, this time for one final umbrella stamp in my passport that unites my temporary registration and my visa. I’m not sure what it will look like, but I’m told it’s the one that will let me come and go as I please… at least until April 4, 2009, when all the fun will begin once again.

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