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18 April, 2011

Reforms and disorder

The government is churning out unlawful laws and calling them “reforms”

Being promised to receive reforms, we’ve got them. Nevertheless, the severity of Ukrainian laws was offset by their non-enforcement. Loopholes, flaws, and cases of overkill were cemented on the local level by common law complete with indispensable bribes, protectionism, companies run by officials who provide paid services to businessmen and so on. All of this and many other things remain intact. But there is one a noticeable difference: the informal relationships between businessmen and tax officials used to put both into the category of offenders (or even criminals) and the very awareness of this fact laid the foundation for social consensus. Now, with the implementation of the Tax Code the abnormally extensive authority granted to the tax police frees their hands. Among other things, they are legally entitled to conduct inspections and sequester property without a court decision. In their relationships with the tax police taxpayers are now guilty by definition. The socioeconomic status quo that has taken shape over the years is now being undermined by the government itself.

There has to be an understanding, it would seem, that the country’s legal system cannot be transformed efficiently without clear principles underlying that transformation. In the absence of such criteria, the objectives of reform and the strategies for achieving them cannot be formulated. Moreover, specific initiatives cannot be assessed in terms of how appropriate or efficient they are. Reforms without principles or goals turn any changes in the law, even those done in the people’s best interests and approved in a referendum, simply become a pile of chaotic changes.

Ukrainian politicians have been wrong since the very launch of these so-called reforms — by promising voters paradise on earth, they are either insincere, or unaware that the purpose of secular laws is quite different: laws are needed to prevent people’s lives from turning into hell. Secular law, unlike canonical law, is meant to teach citizens to brush their teeth and nothing more. But it is unacceptable when people are forced to brush their teeth with a bristle brush and those who refuse to do so are automatically labeled criminals by the state – as taxpayers now are after the Tax Code is implemented.

My everyday experience of talking to people on both sides of the barricades — businessmen and tax officials, attorneys and law enforcement officials, voters and politicians — leads me to the sad conclusion that law and order are progressively degrading. Such concepts as state, government, and law are important social cornerstones. But in many people they evoke laughter, annoyance, envy, anger, sadness, and only in very rare cases do they elicit respect. And such associations are even worse. For example, can you find justice in Ukrainian courts? You can indeed: “Attorney N offered USD 10,000 as a bribe to judge M, while attorney P offered USD 20,000. The judge took USD 10,000 from the latter and decided to … consider the case on its merits according to law.”

Moreover, secular laws are discredited in Ukraine almost as soon as they are passed and certainly before they reach the courts. MPs typically fail to read the documents on which they are voting and quite frequently skip Verkhovna Rada sessions altogether. Adopting regulations in violation of parliamentary procedure, budgets that contradict the Budget Code and constitutional novelties in defiance of the Constitution are our parliament’s norm; however, is this really normal? Everyone has got used to the fact that laws in Ukraine are written specifically for the benefit of some specific person — MPs write them for themselves or their friends and partners. Earlier, this practice involved lobbying (tax relief for enterprises owned by an MP, budget programs to be tapped into by a group, etc) or the government’s self-organization efforts (constitutional reform). Now we are talking about systemic things that affect many people. The Tax Code has been written to make levying taxes easier without any regard for taxpayers’ interests. Land reform is being designed to give next to nothing for peasant-owned land which is now being rented for peanuts. Pension reform is being crafted to avoid hurting former officials whose pensions cost taxpayers at least UAH 40 billion in budget subsidies. What is the moral of these and many other laws? Are such norms and the associated manipulations even legal? What prospects does this kind of “government” with these “laws,” and thus this “state,” have?

Since Ukraine gained independence, the members of the government have simply been defined as reformers – as if the very words “minister” and “MP” somehow mean that whatever they do is legal. For example, they have written a pension code which gives officials who have worked 30 years pension as if they have worked for 59. But does this mean that an official has been working in office since he was born? Do women give birth to the heads of ministerial departments? If so, why not fix the discrepancies in the Family Code?

Relationships in society do not emerge out of nowhere: history shows that a new legal system always springs up in the place of a ruined one. Strangely, having an abundance of wealth and even more, our “reformers” are not content with the existing system. Why to ruin it?

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