Ukraine: Bureaucracy and Incompetence at Defense Ministry

Sergei Maximishin (LJ user remetalk), an award-winning Russian photographer, has recently tried to get the Ukrainian defense ministry’s assistance in doing a photo story on the Ukrainian navy and army for the German Stern. He and his colleague, Stern‘s correspondent Tilman Müller, ended up defeated by the Ukrainian bureaucratic monster. On his blog, Maximishin has posted a detailed account of the ordeal (RUS; the dialog parts of the post are in Ukrainian):

[Sergei Maximishin's photo from Sevastopol]

Spent two weeks working in Ukraine – together with Stern‘s correspondent Tilman Müller [who was doing the writing], we were working on a large overview story about the country. Politics, economy, the army, religion, culture, sports, Euro 2012, the upcoming election, the Russian fleet, swine flu, ultra-right forces, social issues, everyday life. St. Petersburg-Moscow-Donetsk-Kyiv-Lviv-Kyiv-Donetsk-Kyiv-Sevastopol-Kyiv-St. Petersburg.

Before we started working, we met with the editor of the English-language newspaper [Kyiv Post] – and asked for advice: how to get here, and how to get there. To the question on how we should go about shooting something about the Ukrainian army, this wise man recommended not wasting energy and time – it’s not going to work anyway.

Overconfident, I neglected this advice and started calling Mr. Khalyavynsky – “head of the press service of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine.” For three days, [he] wasn’t there, and, asked how it was possible to get in touch with him, his secretary replied, “How would I know?” On the third day, the secretary had mercy on us and gave us his fax number. I wrote a letter in English, asking to help us with shooting on two objects: we were interested in the Ukrainian fleet based in Sevastopol and the Kyiv-based honor guard unit. Emailed the letter to Hamburg, asked to print it out, have the managers sign it and fax to Kyiv.

A day later, I called the press service again:

- Good afternoon, my name is Serhiy Maksimishin, photographer with the Stern chronicle, Germany. I’d like to ask if there’s been any reaction to our fax letter.
- What fax letter? There haven’t been any fax letters from Germany.
- What do you mean there haven’t been any? Our newsroom said they had sent one yesterday…
- They couldn’t have sent anything, because we couldn’t have received anything.
- How come???
- Because we’ve been out of fax paper for a week already.
- Oh God, when will you get it?
- Actually, we do have it, but the person who knows how to insert it isn’t here.
- And when will this person appear?
- Call us back on Monday, maybe someone will show up…

I call them Monday. Fax paper has been inserted. I call the Germans, ask them to re-send the fax and confirm via phone. The Germans call back, say that everything has been sent. I call the press service.

- Ms. Svitlana, this is Serhiy Maksimishin again, photographer with the Stern chronicle, Germany. Tell me please, have you received our fax?
- Yeah, some kind of thing has come through…
- What do you mean, “some kind of thing”???
- Oh, but it’s in a foreign language, so who can read it?..
- What, not a single person in the entire press service knows English??? Aren’t you ashamed?
- Well… Hold on… I’ll ask…

Five minutes later:

- No, the head [of the press service] said Stern should send a letter in Ukrainian.
- May I translate it myself?
- Hold on.

Five more minutes:

- Mr. Khalyavinsky says that, as an exception, you may come over to our office and translate it here.

Tilman and I take a ride across the city to the press service. We find ruins there: the impression is that they started doing renovations some two years ago, and ran out of money a year later. First of all, Svetlana the secretary demands to see our foreign affairs ministry accreditation cards. Tilman had left his at the hotel. The secretary says no one would bother talking to him without accreditation. I say that since I do have accreditation with me, let the boss speak with me. The secretary disappears behind her boss’ door. Then comes back: the boss said that if you’ve come together, there should be two accreditation cards – otherwise, there’ll be no conversation. Tilman calls the hotel, asks the receptionist to go up to his room, find the piece of paper and fax it to us. Fifteen minutes later, the accreditation gets out of the fax machine. The secretary asks us to show her our passports. Spends a long time comparing photographs to the originals. Finally, she hands the letter faxed from Stern to me, as well as two sheets of paper, and asks me to do a written translation of the text. I ask her where I could sit down. “Right here” – she brings a chair to the construction trestle in the hallway. She doesn’t offer a seat to Tilman. I begin translating. [She] glances over my shoulder and protests: “Why are you translating into the Russian language? The boss said it should be in Ukrainian!” I start over, this time in Ukrainian. Who the hell knows what “honor guard unit” is in Ukrainian. At last, I give the fax letter and the hand-written translation to the secretary, she takes it behind the door covered with black fake leather. Ten minutes later, we are allowed to proceed to Mr. Khalyavinsky’s office. Judging by how well-fed [he] is, his rank must be no lower than lieutenant colonel; he doesn’t get up from his desk, is hiding his feet in blue rubber slippers under the table.

In English, Tilman delivers a ritual spiel about Stern and its 8 million readers. I translate it into the nightingale language [Ukrainian]. Khalyavinsky shines with friendliness. [He] barely speaks Ukrainian, gets the words mixed up. Apologizes for this, says that he has spent his whole life as a correspondent with the [Russian/Soviet] Northern Fleet newspaper, and now he is forced to learn Ukrainian anew. Says that he’d be happy to help us, but he’s surprised why such experienced journalists of such an esteemed magazine don’t know the basic things and have taken the wrong path. The right path, according to Khalyavinsky, is this: “Let the Germans talk to their military attache, who has to write a letter to Mr. Miroshnichenko, head of the defense ministry’s committee for international cooperation, and Mr. Miroshnichenko has to issue a resolution and address it to the minister [of defense], and then the minister would give orders to Khalyavinsky, and then there’ll be no problems whatsoever, work as you please.”

Tilman called the German embassy right from [Khalyavinsky's] office, they spend five minutes looking for the attache, the German spends a long time explaining “the right path” to his compatriot, then hands over the phone to Khalyavinsky, who, once again, this time in Ukrainian, describes the trajectory of paperwork. The attache promises to help. As I say good-bye, I ask Khalyavinsky for [his] cell phone number and that of Mr. Miroshnichenko, whom I’m not acquainted with – “head of the committee for international cooperation.” The attache calls the next day, says that he’s sent the letter out, but doubts this will bring any results. One day later, I call Khalyavinsky – he says that “unfortunately, the minister [of defense] has fallen ill” and recommends calling Miroshnichenko. Miroshnichenko’s phone is turned off. I call Khalyavinsky on his cell phone again: “The number you are trying to reach is unavailable at the moment.” I call Svetlana on her landline phone:

- Mr. Khalyavinsky isn’t there.
- When will he be in?
- How would I know?

All this, for an entire week.

We ended up deciding to fly to Sevastopol and shoot whatever’s available. At the embankment, I hired a boat for 450 hryvnias [approx. $56] and, for 100 hryvnias [$12.50], two midshipmen of the Russian Navy, who promised to show us all the Russian ships, including the fleet’s flagship cruiser Moskva, which is currently laid up at a floating dock. Already on the boat, I ask the midshipmen:

- And where is the Ukrainian fleet stationed?
- Ah, it’s not here, they’ve all gone to Bulgaria for tomatoes, – the midshipmen laugh at their own joke.

P.S. If some of you think that the Russian defense ministry’s press service employs a different type of people, you are mistaken.

As one of my acquaintances used to say, “we are working from inside a tight circle of [morons].”

In one of the comments to Maximishin’s post, Kyiv-based LJ user vi_chanceux wrote (RUS) that he was ashamed for his country, which is “ruled” by such incompetent individuals. Maximishin responded:

You shouldn’t be ashamed for the country: the country and the state are different things, but alas, not everyone understands this.