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16 December, 2011

The Kireyev Syndrome

The inability to hear other people is a serious psychic malfunction and a mental disease. However, this incapacity is selective and asymmetrical: words that come down from higher-ups are given due attention.

There is this well-known joke: “Doctor, I have a problem – I am being constantly ignored.” “Next please.” In a similar twist, the little Ukrainian’s relationships with his state has entered a new stage. Now it simply ignores him and turns a deaf ear to his voice.

Here is a snapshot of everyday reality: tax police officers show up at a firm and demand to see a document that the latter does and cannot have. The director and chief accountant – accidentally, a husband and wife – try to resist and ask to see at least an official request. The officers flip their top – they are so touchy. “All right then. We’ll close your shady business, seal your store and freeze your accounts. Don’t like it? Go to court.” I have heard more than a dozen such stories in the past year, and with increasing frequency lately. A traffic officer stops a driver, fines him and immediately tows off his car to a car pound where it will be kept until the fine is paid. But this is illegal! Well, you are free to complain if you want.

Here is another real-life story. A group of investigators and a district police inspector come to a potential “client,” who they know will not put up resistance, take him to a police department and work on him there until he confesses to a crime he never committed. No arguments will do. You can’t fight the truncheon – sign the confession statement if you don’t want to have your bones rearranged.

A smart and experienced Ukrainian reads the situation perfectly and tries to settle things on the spot. In the case of the car, several hundred hryvnias will do. With the tax police, at least a four-digit sum is needed. And it won't necessarily go into the pockets of your unwelcome guests; perhaps it’s just a matter of contributing to their official monthly quota of fines. As far as the criminal case is concerned, it depends on your luck. They will consider your financial status, to be sure. Less experienced or more naive Ukrainians hope to prove in court that they are citizens whose rights are guaranteed by the law. Poor things! Statistics show it is next to impossible to beat any government agency in court. The only glimmer of hope may be offered by a judge close to retirement age who does not care much about his further career.

How the Ukrainian justice system acts can be seen in the way the bright Rodion Kireyev handled the Yulia Tymoshenko case. He is not made of rock and does not have nerves of steel – you can see it in the twitching of his facial muscles. But he is hard of hearing. Any argument that contradicts his position (more precisely, that of his bosses) – and I mean any argument – falls on deaf ears. What did you say? Speak up! I can’t hear you!

This is exactly how every government body reacts to any signal from the grassroots. Therein lies a fundamental difference from what our older generation is used to – when the government listened hard to people whispering in their kitchens and could fire or imprison you for an injudiciously spoken word. Even a decade ago there was some reaction from top officials to press reports. You can indulge in conspiracy theories and hypothesize about the motives behind the Georgy Gongadze murder, but the undeniable fact is that he was killed for his articles. To put it differently, words mattered back then. Now, until the launch of the next election campaign, the government believes it can abstract itself from uncomfortable words. The key information resource – television – is firmly in the hands of the “right” people, so the government can afford to disregard other media outlets. Write what you want and say what you want – just don’t clutter the landscape that opens from the window of my Mercedes. We won’t let you put up tents, but if you decide to voice your discontent via some online medium, go ahead — no-one will hear you anyway.

The inability to hear other people is a serious psychic malfunction and a mental disease. However, this incapacity is selective and asymmetrical: words that come down from higher-ups are given due attention. Back in Soviet times, I happened to witness a scene when a mid-level manager received a phone call from the Communist Party’s Central Committee, no less. When he realized who was calling him, he stood up and kept standing until he hung up the phone, even though he could not, of course, be seen by the person on the other end. It's not like they were talking on Skype back then. I recently stopped by a political scientist I know. Though he is seemingly independent, he does have some commitments. While I was there, he received a call from the Presidential Administration. He, too, rose to his feet. Similar situations evoke similar reflexes.

However, not all Ukrainians – not even a majority – are ready to grovel. The deafness of the top officials is a kind of sociopathy that is usually accompanied by a weakened self-preservation instinct. Do I need to explain this any further?

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