This interview with Artur Amirov, Director of Public Service Center, Odessa State Regional Administration, is part of the series of interviews for the research project “Ukrainian Democracy: Performance, Challenges and Futures”. The project aims to understand the key barriers to building the successful democracy in Ukraine – in the sphere or government, at the level of civil society and in the filed of foreign policy.
On 15th August, Kateryna Ianishevska met with 5 representatives of Odessa State Regional Administration. The interview with Artur Amirov, Director of Public Service Center, Odessa State Regional Administration, please read below.
UDI: What do you see as the barriers to democracy in Ukraine – at the executive, municipality, and citizenry levels?
Artur: At the executive level – you mean at the level of central government? Whether it is democratic or not? Personally I do not think it is fully democratic. It is attempting to be. Currently there are some attempts at making Ukraine more democratic. However, I believe there are lots of difficulties being ignored by the central government. I believe there is a very wide range of problems in our country regarding those difficulties. Just yesterday I was in the Odessa region with the Governor discussing wine making in Ukraine. Ukraine is very undemocratic because of the Soviet Era laws and regulations are still in practice. This prevents local beer and wine producers from selling their wine because of the 33 regulations they must abide by in order to actually pour their wine into bottles and legally sell them in shops. This makes it impossible for the local wine-makers to progress. I feel this is very non-democratic. I am also working closely with the Ministry of Justice. I believe that our current Minister, Mr Petrenko is doing a lot and together with him, our team has initiated a vast amount of reforms aimed at decentralizing power and services related to the registration of property rights and businesses. It [the decentralization] literally has de-monopolized service industries. At the municipal city level, particularly Odessa, I believe there are a lot of difficulties with our Mayor. I have personally been in direct and indirect confrontation with him and his department regarding our Public Service Center. Our centre was opened 16th October 2015, and has already experienced a huge number of difficulties. These are artificial difficulties, designed by the Mayor himself, simply because he does not favor our Governor. I am working with the Governor, and I am in his team of experts. We are fighting corruption, which creates a platform for the public service sector to minimize the opportunities for corruption. Obviously, it is not in the interest of many. It is not in the interest of those who have power and who have had power for a long period of time in Ukraine. They normally earn money from, for instance, registering lands and reducing wait times. This is just at the very minimal local level. If it is a flat, for example…Citizens pay bribes so as to avoid waiting for another month or two to get approvals. On a “larger” level there are some legal issues concerning land entitlement. You can make beneficial deals with official, or get registered, or legalize documents that are normally refused. So yeah, on a democratic level, Ukraine is terrible, especially with what I have seen during my studies abroad. I have spent many years in the UK. I also lived in Belgium for three years, and one year and a half in Poland. So up until 2010, I spent 13 years in the Western Europe studying, experiencing [these societies], and I believe that is why I have returned – to share this experience and to raise my country from where it was standing last 24 years.
UDI: What forms of corruption do you find most tantalizing? Petty or grand corruption?
Artur: It is a combination of factors. One cannot be without the other. If we did not have corruption at the highest level, or at the executive level, to fight local corruption would have been a lot easier. It would be a matter of months, even probably days, and not years. However, when we have “senior” people talking about corruption on lower levels and on a larger scale, which they literally have direct connections to, how can we await for corruption to be terminated at the local level? We have wages of 100 dollars for civil servants. How can we expect these civil servants to actually live off this money, this wage?
How can we expect these guys to actually survive when renting a flat? The cheapest flat in Odessa would be the equivalent of this wage. We are talking about a lot of guys from the region coming to work in Odessa. They will never go to the government sector unless they directly know they will not be living off their wages only, but off additional gains.
UDI: As far as we know, the Governor decided to involve independent observers, and NGOs representatives in fighting corruption? Has this occurred?
Artur: Personally I believe that our Governor is the most open politician today in Ukraine. He is the one that is most with the people. He does not distance himself from the public. He is always with the public. He tries to gather information from the public to a maximum extent. He co-operates with the vast majority of public organizations, local and national activists. Has this helped to gather information? Indeed. When you correspond closely, with local activists and national groups, you obtain a lot of information. The problem is not only in the process of obtaining the information, but rather it is with the process of using information along with legal measures targeted towards changing a particular situation. He has this information, but cannot do anything with it, because he is without support from central government. He has to do double the work. First, he must gather information to identify weak spots in society, in our political landscape at both local to regional levels. Second, there is the need to convince central government to [effectively] react. I believe there has never been a case in history (at least for Ukraine) where the Governor managed to remove the Prime Minister and the Head Prosecutor of Ukraine. These were Saakashvili’s initiatives. He was the man to make it public and to act openly. He managed to get results, but this not how to do the job.
The system needs changing. You remove one prosecutor, only for another to come. There is no guarantee that the other would not be the same as the predecessor.
UDI: Where is inspiration for the reforms derived from? Is there any effective case study to follow or are the reforms entirely responsive to the situation in the city?
Artur: The establishment of the Public Services Centre (PSC) was modeled on the Georgian House of Justice. Now every single Georgian is using it, so much so that it has become a daily comfort for Georgians. If I am not mistaken, the Georgian House of Justice was identified as a possible format for British administrative services to adopt, by the British Parliament. Again as I am personally connected to the PSC, I believe it is a huge success story in this field. I know you have recently talked to Customs, which have achieved a highly transparent, expedient, and adequate customs systems for Georgia. Why? Because they [Customs] had the power and resources to do it! In Ukraine do we have resources? Maybe. We have help from our American and other Western partners. But we do not have the power or full authority to make needed changes. The question is if we had [such power], what would we do with it? We would see tons and tons of success stories in Ukraine if we had the authority to implement these changes, and yet we do not. What powers does the regional Governor have? Basically we have regional council and administrative [powers]. They are supposed to work together; but they do not. In the regional council, we have 60-70% separatists and businessmen. The majority of them are interested in exclusively protecting their own interests. That’s it! The Mayor has his own party and influence in the regional council. I would not say our Governor is paralyzed, but his authority is minimal. Still, he does what he can. I am not here to praise him, but what if we had more politicians like Saakashvili in Ukraine? His interest is simple. He is a creator and an ideologist. He believes in what he does. He may appear very public and talkative, but he is a humble man who remains true to his beliefs. I can stand by his words myself. We should be more supportive of his undertakings. I do not think the public is getting the true image of our team. The media generates the Governor’s public image. Sadly, the media belongs to private entities, oligarchs, and businessmen that maintain their interest. The public does not have access to real and truthful information on what is going on.
UDI: On the topic of regional security, recent terrorist acts on the Ataturk Airport highlighted possible vulnerabilities. Considering daily flights from Odessa to Istanbul, do you feel that the situation in Odessa is affected by emerging terrorist threats?
Artur: We have very close ties with Turkey, and are highly dependent on each other in many respects. We import a lot of Turkish products. The 7th km market in Odessa is vastly filled with products from Turkey. I don’t think trade will be affected by terrorist attacks. The majority of transportation is maritime. We have ferries with products arriving nearly twice or three times a day. We also have a strong Turkish community. There are many Turkish people working, studying, getting married here. How would [Odessa] be affected? My father was in a transit area at that time of the attack; but 7 minutes before the attack he was on the same spot where it occurred. Would he fly again? I think he would. He needs to fly for business. If it keeps happening, then yes it might have an effect. I think Turkey is living through a very difficult period. They used to have strong trade ties with the Russians, now they are re-establishing them.
It is hard for me to judge, I am not an expert. But if the Government of Turkey pulls itself together to improve the situation it has on its borders, and closely co-operates with the EU, and American partners, it will once again establish a peaceful, strong community, and welcoming country, where we will gladly travel in future.
UDI: Is there any initiative to establish security co-operation between the countries of the Black Sea Region?
Artur: As far as I know, there are any such initiatives. But, I would not take my word on it. I personally was one of the organizers of an Istanbul-Odessa Forum, a couple of months ago, where we had a delegation. We traveled to Istanbul and met the Mayor of the city where we held the forum together with the leading Turkish businessmen. I was there with the Governor. We established several good contacts, but again Turks are wise businessmen and I respect them for this. They are very cautious in investing. They understand the situation in Ukraine is not stable, and they are taking their time. As soon as Ukraine is globally perceived as a more stable country, more secure country with more investment-friendly environment, Turkish investments will pour into the country. The Odessa region a lot of potential, such as the size of the country, human factors, cheap workforce, efficient vision of IT specialists, and working institutions, even though they are currently dragging behind the world standards. There is a lot to build together with Turkish, Australian, and Greek Partners…
Globally the world today is going through a difficult period and we need to see how it will develop. Unless world leaders manage to compromise, we have difficult times ahead. We could live in a very beautiful world once again, but today we are not living in a very safe environment.
UDI: To conclude our conversation, I would like to ask you about the Public Service Centre. Which tasks does it carry out and what is planned for its future?
Artur: We opened over seven months ago. One of the new services we will introduce is weddings and divorces processes similar to Las Vegas. People come to Odessa and get married quickly. Once again thanks to the reforms implemented by Ministry of Justice in close co-operation with our team of experts and analysts we are now restarting our work. We had a very difficult period, war-time period with the City Council, but we had to work closely with them and we were dependent on them. The Centre was closed for two weeks in April, we re-opened on the 10th of May as an independent entity. We are now waiting for financial aid, about 6 000 000 hryvnas which will help us last until the end of this year and will allow us to develop these services not only in Odessa, but to bring them to the region. These services are an everyday necessity to our citizens. Our experts are working in Mariupol and Kharkiv today helping them build similar centers. Usaid helped as with the equipment worth 300 000 dollars, it is the biggest grant to be ever placed in Ukraine by Usaid and we are thankful. We understand that without this grant we would not have been able to go forward, but we also would not have been able to obtain it without the reputation of our Governor. It was solely done by his reputation. Nobody would trust us otherwise as far as Ukraine has a wobbling reputation concerning the grants and money. Now we are only confined to property rights and business, but we have prospects and we are working very hard to add more and more services. This is very important because it helps foreign investors to come to Odessa as they know they will be able to do business safely here.