Double vision blog: Democratic bureaucracy versus corruption
Sitting in the glow of my computer’s screen on my desk, ploughing through paperwork during a late night work session, Global Questions presented by Zeinab Badawi on BBC World Service came on the radio. It was from Kiev so I gladly ceased my paperwork, made a cup of tea and sat down to listen.
The panel answering and discussing questions that came from the audience covered Ukrainian issues and highlighted several basic problems. Not least the war which is causing so much uncertainty, disruption to lives and straining the country’s finances; the economy and corruption were two other subjects discussed.
Corruption quashes freedom and hope. It preserves and enables a greedy and powerful elite which takes and doesn’t give back.
Ukraine is such a new-born democracy that it will take time, “at least a decade” said Sir Suma Chakrabarti to reach a position that allows a functioning, prosperous and fair society aided by new investment and driving out corruption.
Surprisingly it wasn’t until 1850 that Britain started to develop its democracy. Our population had rapidly expanded, become more mobile and industrial areas grew at the expense of rural ones. We had been governed by a minority of male landed gentry.
Hard working people in business and trade felt that their contribution to the growing wealth of the country during the Industrial Revolution was not evenly distributed and they wanted a share in political power too.
The working classes became better educated as national newspapers and railways delivered political news and information. Foreign news brought comparisons between our government’s and other systems. Some of it resulted in the growth of trade unions to represent and protect workers.
Since the Orange Revolution in 2004 Ukrainians have realised that they can demand a transparent democracy without corruption. As British citizens in 1850 quickly became better informed through improved communications so have Ukrainians with the internet and mobile phones. Two different scenarios but both bringing about a desire for democracy.
Democratic bureaucracy is the replacement of pernicious corruption but often in Britain it has evolved into a cumbersome sledge hammer. In the last few weeks I have wrestled with a complicated year long legal court case requiring 600 pages of printed evidence and a highly qualified lawyer, an eight month battle with England’s valuation system that levies tax on the size of your property to simply trying to send a parcel in the post to my friend in Ukraine.
It took 7 months to get a hearing with the Valuation Tribunal to try to have my property reassessed, where I was thwarted by the application of a time limit deemed to have run out, that I didn’t know applied until I made my enquiry and which may have stopped a fair hearing in its tracks.
I wanted to send my Ukrainian friend’s mother a pair of gardening shears that are like a big pair of scissors by international post. I found a rubber cap for the blades’ point, wrapped them in several layers of canvas and two of bubble wrap followed by paper and tape. For security reasons the post office inquired what was in the package; which is not unreasonable in a society that suffers threats and incidents of violence and terrorism.
I vaguely answered “gardening tools” which did not satisfy the post office worker. I elaborated: “shears”. The post office worker said they could be dangerous weapon. I pointed out that a pair of knitting needles could be a dangerous weapon if in the wrong hands at the wrong time.
Shears are not on the banned list but the post office worker thought she ought to contact the Ukrainian postal services to check. I commented that it might stir up a hornet’s nest of complications and marched out.
At my local post office I was asked the same questions. This time I lied when I elaborated on gardening tools - and said “ a trowel and a little fork”. This was accepted and off the parcel went. I notified my friend that I had sent the parcel and hoped it would arrive without being ‘mis-appropriated’ in Ukraine. A week later it did, safely and with no fuss.
So; I had corrupted the system by lying but it was the stultifying rigidity of the bureaucratic system that encouraged me to break the rules.
As Ukraine casts off its painful Soviet history and seeks to embrace a new and better way of governance there is a precious jewel that has emerged from inside the time and battle scarred rock that represents Ukraine and that we in the UK have all but lost: it is everyday freedom.
You are not supposed to make your own vodka in Ukraine but many people do, you are supposed to wear a helmet on a motorcycle but if you don’t and injure your head you are unlikely to be prosecuted, if you want to park your car in central Kiev for a few hours in the evening and there’s no official parking available; as long as you’re not causing an obstruction your car won’t be towed away and be levied with a big fine. If you need a lift to get from your village to town you can stand by the road and put your thumb out to ask for one. Most likely you will be successful and perfectly safe.
We used to have that kind of freedom in Britain in the 60’s and 70’s but we have lost it under a blanket of cameras that report any misdemeanours so that we can be fined or controlled. I used to thumb lifts all over the place when I was young but nowadays motorists are frightened they may be accused of kidnap, be attacked or sued if they have an accident. Reality can’t have changed that much: It must still be relatively safe to ask for and give a lift.
We have lost a lot of spontaneity as we have made our society safer and more regulated. Everything we eat, drink, watch and do is labelled and assessed.
The new Ukrainian bureaucratic system devised to administer justice, law and health and safety regulations for the benefit of its population should beware of the monster it can turn into if applied and administered by people who still seek power and control but by other means.
I hope it finds a balance that makes a fairer country for all whilst retaining a sense of freedom. I really noticed the difference this year from 10 years ago. People are right to worry about the war and the economy, but they appear confident and optimistic about the future and I think they have good reason to be, as long as bureaucracy doesn’t balloon out of proportion.
This blog in Ukrainian can be read here.