“Find permit A38” – trapped in Kyrgyz bureaucracy

Bureaucracy illustration with Max Weber and Franz Kafka by: Harald Groven (flickr)

Bureaucracy illustration with Max Weber and Franz Kafka by: Harald Groven (flickr)

I enter the building for the fifth time in two weeks. I know now where to head. I carry my passport in my hand, passing  by the queue of people sitting at the table and filling out documents. The woman in line before me is almost crying: “… but he is studying here. He has all the documents to study, he already started!” Woman behind the counter: “The permit is only for a month. I cannot extend it”. The first woman: “But you cannot finish studying in a month. He will miss the exams. He will fail the exams”. Woman behind the counter: “The permit is only for a month.” The woman turns around and addresses the person she’s been arguing for. He shruggs, she sighs and both of them have to leave the room. I’m next. I’m nervous. I will ask for the director, I will try to find clear answers. I know I won’t get them from only-one-month-permit-lady but she is my starting point into a lot of trouble. I hand over my passport – and wait for the trouble to start.Visit visa-free  Kyrgyzstan!

Since I arrived back in Bishkek, I had been living on “the stamp“. The stamp is the most common way to live in or visit Kyrgyzstan as a foreigner who is not permanently under contract. The stamp is also what makes Kyrgyzstan the most convenient country for travellers in Central Asia. It allows them to enter Kyrgyzstan and stay there for 60 days without any registration or payment to make. This does of course not include all countries but most EU countries, the USA, and several Asian and Middle Eastern countries. To extend the visa permit and stay longer than the 60 days, one needs to leave the country and can receive a new stamp with 60 more days to spend in beautiful Kyrgyzstan. Therefore, many just leave Bishkek and cross the nearest border to Kazakhstan (1 to 1,5 hours drive to the border post which is depending on the side you are coming from either called Korday (from Kaz) or Ak-Shol (from KG)) once every two months and reenter on a fresh stamp.
This is especially convenient for citizens from the EU since Kazakh the visa costs us only 35$. It also only takes the embassy about 3-4 working days to prepare the visa and then you’re free to go – and come back!

So, everything easy in the most democratic republic of Central Asia whose government tries to promote tourism as a new promising economic sector. Why then my problems? Well, I came to the Kazakh embassy on May, 1. – 12 days before my stamp expired. Although most stores were open, I should have known better. May 1 – one of the Soviet holidays, that we even have in Germany. The embassy was closed. Not only on that day though but up until May 4, so that Kazakh embassy workers could spend the weekend at home. Fine. I returned on May 5 (which by the way is also a holiday in Kyrgyzstan: Constitution day, but does not affect Kazakh working routines), got all my documents ready, copy of passport, newly printed picture of myself. I handed it over to the person behind the desk – and then noticed the note next to the window: “closed from May 7 til May 10. Damn. “Your visa will be ready next Monday”. Here the problem was born: On Monday my stamp would expire, no way to leave the country then, even with a valid Kazakh visa, which by the way I would only be able to get at 5pm in the evening.
I asked for express – “Нет”.
I explained my situation – “Нет”.
He told me I should try to fly somewhere to get the stamp. Maybe to Almaty.

Investigating options and finding confusion

I now had several more unpleasant options in my head how to avoid being in the country illegally:
1. fly out and pay the flight to wherever I could go without a visa.
2. pretend to fly out and have missed the flight and reenter with a new stamp
3. apply for a real Kyrgyz visa at the OVIR (Passport Visa Services Unit of the Ministry of Interior) where I had been already the year before with my secretary to apply for working visa.

As a first step I went to the travel agency “Kyrgyz Concept” who largely manage the tourism sector in Kyrgyzstan. Their main office on Moskovskaya/Isanova offered help with visa problems in all relevant countries. This was my second counter encounter after the Kazakh embassy. I outlined my problem and the guy behind the counter said that options 1 and 2 were impossible. For one I would have to go to Turkey, which is the nearest country without visa requirements for Germans, Kazakhstan, like the Kazakh embassy person had suggested, was impossible because it required a transit visa. The flight to Turkey would take me a day (5 hours there – waiting time – 5 hours back) and cost a lot of money. Option two was not feasable because firstly slightly illegal, and secondly the Manas airport is not built with an option to reenter and have your passport controled in the departure section. It would include a lot of negotiation in Russian and the possibility of reentering without a fresh stamp. I also would have to by a one-way-ticket to anywhere.
So, option three: Kyrgyz concept offers their customers the service of applying for a 3-month tourist visa for 250$. A loooot of money.
– “What if I do it on my own?”
– “It would cost approx. 1000 som (19 $ or 14 €). It takes them a while to process it so you also have to pay штраф  (a penalty) of about 1000 soms. The guy behind the counter smiled but didn’t try to discourage me. Sure I thought: if there is such a big difference, why does not everyone do it on their own? But I blamed it on the language problems of most tourists…

Where is the штраф?

The next day I went to the OVIR – to the first counter. “Nationality?” – “German” – “Documents ready?”….
I had to fill in an application form which I had to buy for 5 som, for the rest I used passport copy and photo that I wanted to use for the Kazakh visa. I also had to write an application, telling the reasons for my inquiry. Sitting at the table with at least ten other people who were writing their application on scratch paper, lending each other pens, I got a glimpse at their nationality. Most of them were Uzbek, I saw one Russian woman and some passports that I could not identify. When I was done, the lady sent me upstairs to an office, which took me a while to find. Plain door. No secretary, no lights to signal that you can go in. The lady in the neighbouring office just shrugged when I asked her. So just enter – and be send out immediately. “One second”.

I waited with a Russian girl outside the office for 45 minutes until a man came out. When I got ready to enter he said: “Not yet”. Another 20 minutes later a whole bunch of older Kyrgyz men left the office, laughing and chatting. Nice!
The man in the office was very friendly, asked me three times why the hell I would do research about Kyrgyzstan, and copied my credit card which left me with quite a bad feeling. He copied all my documents and made me write more stuff on them, most of which I did not understand. When I thought we were done with smalltalk and paperwork, he made me call a friend because apparently I needed someone to guarantee for me. That I would not overstay my visa (haha) etc. Luckily my friend could make it and came very quickly from his work to the OVIR. We spent another 20 minutes chitchatting and copying a load of documents before he finally signed everything. “This will take 15 days for the commission to review it. They will either accept it, or deny, in which case you have to leave the country”. I almost collapsed. I could not wait 15 days and then be denied because I would not be able to leave the country anymore!

“Oh, in this case you will be deported and cannot enter the country for some time”,

said the old Kyrgyz man and laughed loudly. When he saw my worried face, he added: “Don’t worry. We like Germans. You’ll be fine”. He promised me to do his best and make the commission review it by Monday. That would already be too late but maybe I could then in the case of denial leave the country without too much trouble…

Nothing to do but wait and hope.

On Monday I went to the OVIR around 10am. Passport in my hand. “Nationality?” – “German” – “Surname” – “….” – “Not here, next!”
– “When will it be here? I was promised it would be here by today”
– “It is not! Come back tomorrow”
– “But…”
– “Next!”
Again Kyrgyz Concept. Again Confusion: while the guy at OVIR had told me the penalty would be 1000 per day, which, if the commission would stick to their 15 days limit would cost me more than the 250$ I had wanted to spare, Kyrgyz Concept insisted that it was only 1000 overall. They also promised for additional 1000 they would go with me to the militsia and facilitate the penalty process. I agreed to come back in two weeks when the visa would be ready but was worried that OVIR would be right and I would end up paying a lot more than I had (planned). Contradicting information. I decided to go with all my options. I had received my election documents for the election of European Parliament and had to bring them back to the embassy so that they would arrive on time until May 25 (yes everyone, don’t forget to vote :)). I asked at the German embassy:
– “Sorry, this is between you and the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry”

I felt very insecure about the contradicting information I got from all sides. I asked different people, who had paid different fines. A friend of mine who applied at the same time like me was told that his guaranteeing friend had to be from Bishkek, while mine was originally from the region Talas. Different people had to pay different fees in different locations, and official travel agents of friends could not find out about the penalty regulations – if there were any!

Lost in the labyrinth by seryikotik 1970.

Lost in the labyrinth by seryikotik 1970.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 – 10.00 am:

I enter the building for the fifth time in two weeks. I know now where to head. I carry my passport in my hand, passing  by the queue of people sitting at the table and filling out documents. The woman in line before me is almost crying. Now it is my turn. I will try to find clear answers. I know I won’t get them from the one-month-permit-woman but she is my starting point into a lot of trouble. I hand over my passport – and wait for the trouble to start.
In that moment, she pulls out of a pile of documents one that has my picture on it. “Give me your passport and come back at 5pm”. I am stunned. It worked. The commission accepted my application. At 5pm I approach the counter for the last time and the grumpy lady hands over the passport with the visa.
This brownish-yellow paper had never looked so beautiful to me!

Lessons learned: Post-soviet bureaucracy, like I experienced it, is a pain in the ass. In the end everything worked out like planned, so I cannot really complain. People were not more unfriendly like in other bureaucratic institutions anywhere else. And contrary to the common prejudice I did not have to bribe anyone to get what I wanted. The problem was more, that I was constantly worried because there was no way to find a regulated procedure and reliable information. Because of that, it seemed very arbitrary. But there are two sides to everything. This unpredictability might sometimes work against you and sometimes for you. In the end, I didn’t have to pay a single som for штраф.
This detail of me overstaying my 60 days just must have gotten lost between some papers, in piles, in files, on desks, or in drawers – somewhere in the absurdities of a bureaucratic system.



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