A little low-level corruption might be nice


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Reports of the inefficiency of the Russian bureaucratic apparatus are as old as the hills. Upon taking office in 2008, President Dmitry Medvedev declared a nation-wide battle against corruption. Various acts of bureaucratic centralization in the years since have been a reflection of the new policies to curtail bribery and inefficiency.

Critics agree, however, that the reforms do more to complicate citizens’ lives than to stop corruption where it is most rampant: the top of the governmental food chain.

On July 14, Mikhail Zakharov, a writer for the website polit.ru, reported that even according to the Medvedev himself in an earlier speech to the Federation Council of Russia “no marked success in the battle with corruption can be observed.”

But most people already know this.  The policy double-speak, the infringement on constitutional rights, and the steady centralization of all political life in Russia are old news.

So how does all this bureaucratic corruption and confusion at the top affect citizens at the bottom?  The best way to find out is to step into the shoes of an ordinary citizen and track an average bureaucratic process. A good example is property inheritance.

Six months after my grandmother’s death last November, we could begin to address the business of her inheritance. Here is the story of what her daughter (my mother), the only heir, had to go through to transfer the family apartment into her name.

The original paperwork proving my grandmother’s ownership had to be taken to the city notary responsible for the last name letter of the deceased owner. The notary then opened a case file of transference of ownership and requested a range of different papers and certifications. Between originals and copies of these documents, my mother needed to provide roughly 20 separate papers in total.

All of those papers had to be obtained from six or seven different offices and centers of the state apparatus which relate to property and inheritance.  

To say that the working hours of those offices were inconvenient would be an understatement. Each office is open on a dual schedule. The mornings are usually reserved for the submission of documents and the afternoons for reception of various approval forms and government authorizations.  

In order to submit any documents within the three or four-hour window when the offices are open, citizens start forming lines as early as the previous night or early in the morning.

Inside the offices, very little exists to make the process of registration and submission easier. Since phone calls are almost never answered, and the sparse online instructions are often vague and truncated, one can never be sure what kind of documents are needed for any given procedure.

The process may require photocopies of everything. Or not. If it is the case, and the photocopies are not provided, there are no copiers available on site to take care of it.  

Payments are also not made on site. This is another element of the battle against corruption. Money cannot be given directly to a bureaucratic office; it has to be paid at the state bank, and the receipt must then be brought back to the office.  Citiznes must wait in line to pay and then wait in line some more to submit the receipt.

Every office tends to work at no more than 50 percent capacity. If there are three windows available to submit or receive things, only one tends to be staffed. If there are two available waiting rooms, only one will have chairs.  There are never enough chairs.

Days, weeks or months may go by before the desired authorization or confirmation is issued.  Most frequently, to receive it requires standing again in lines prior to the available hours of disbursement of prepared documents to the public.

If all of that is not excruciating enough, the offices are usually not air conditioned and are filled with other confused, frustrated, often elderly people. The employees are rarely personable and may take breaks at any time convenient for them. 

So is there a silver lining? It used to be bureaucrats themselves. There is a reason why people bend rules, and it is not only that rules are bendable. As Zakharov pointed out in his article, “corruption is not only a legal problem, it’s a mental problem, a problem of everyday habits, a problem of the legitimate behavior of all the country’s citizens.” 

Many having to go through the above-described process, for example, would be overjoyed to hear that they could pay more and spend less time in line, or get things done faster. Bureaucracy in Russia used to have a human face. That face did not smile, but it did help you cut corners if you paid a few more rubles.

However, the steps that have been taken to curtail such rule-breaking at the lowest bureaucratic level have made it impossible to arrange faster, more efficient processing with local representatives.

Regular citizens are now condemned to a crippling, Orwellian world of over-crowded waiting rooms, eternal processing times and ever more complicated procedures. If all goes according to plan, my family should be in possession of the new ownership papers by mid-August. That is, if the notary does not go on vacation.

During her stay in Russia, Maya wrote a blog about life in St. Petersburg.