27 October 2008

Pawn to King 4: The Prosecutor’s Opening

From the tone of the official letters that I received demanding my presence, one would think I was meeting the top Prosecutor in the country. As it happens, it is one of the Prosecutor’s assistants that will take my deposition. He opens the door to the small office he shares with another assistant and invites my lawyer and me to sit down opposite him at his small desk. It strikes me that this office is impressively equipped relative to the other government offices I’ve been in. A personal computer sits on each desk; an air-conditioning unit hangs above a large window.

He is young, though well schooled in the bureaucratic manner of the old pros twice, or even three times his age. The opening is standard. It involves setting up the immensity of the crude, blatant, and negligent violation that Ministry X’s diligent Inspectorate has documented in their official “Protocols of Inspection”.

“Are you familiar with the contents of Article 63 of the Constitution of Ukraine?” he asks.

“Yes” I reply. I was briefed earlier.

“And do you consciously waive those rights? If so, sign here.”

Ok, even though I am fully aware that I am playing my role in a corruption dance there is still a little room in my psyche for fear to creep in. After all, he does have the power to incarcerate me on whatever charges he wishes to trump up. Seeing the inside of a Ukrainian prison, even for an hour, is not on my “to do before I die” list. I sign the document.

“Well,” he starts, “as a foreigner our laws may seem a little primitive to you. I fully agree. In fact it pains me that the legislation is so confusing with so many contradictory instructions and clarifications. I really feel for people like you who run businesses but there is little I can do. I have to play by the rules right? I have to enforce the law as it is.”

“Of course,” I reply, “the laws are there to protect Ukraine and its citizens. We, at the company bend over backwards to comply with every regulation no matter how arcane and seemingly illogical. We learned early on that to do otherwise would simply open us up to a continuous revolving door of inspectors and fines.” then dropping the volume of my voice I add “official and otherwise”.

“I’m glad you agree”, he nods ignoring the last phrase, “sometimes I get the impression that you Americans do things in Ukraine they would never think of doing in America for fear of the strict fines there.” He muses for moment. “I was in Chicago once you know.”

“Nice city.” My mind conjures images of Ministry X bureaucrats and their counterparts from other countries at a lakeside convention hall checking out each other’s new Armani suits. This is going well I think to myself naively. Maybe it was ok to say no to paying that bribe last week?

“Now about the facts of the matter at hand. Our Inspectorate has pictures of your violation. If you add up the damages, it’s over twenty thousand Hryvnia. That means, that we are not discussing the simple matter of an administrative fine. No indeed, you as General Director of the company, are criminally liable. Are you aware of this?” he asks arching his eyebrows and looking over the top of his glasses.

“Are you opening a criminal case against my client?” pipes up my lawyer, suddenly awake and alert.

When speaking with a Ukrainian government official I’d rather not even be part of a conversation with word “criminal” in it.

“Well, not at this point. I need to ask some questions.” answers the Prosecutor.

I can sense the smugness in his demeanor. He is satisfied with the way the opening is playing out. From the numerous piles of legal paperwork he picks up one in particular and starts flipping through the pages.

“It’s a shame,” sighs the Prosecutor “now that the Protocols of Inspection have been filed with my office I have to investigate”. The implication being that I had my chance to make a deal at the Inspectorate level at a reasonable rate, and that now it’s going to cost me.

“Now. Let’s get started. Passport please.”

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