Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Bureaucratic Wastelands

This post is about bureaucracy. It will be a long, ponderous piece with little or no point. Bureaucracy, anywhere, is unpleasant. In Croatia though, it seems especially painful. This is because our fates are irrevocably intertwined with the mystery that lurks within the bureaucracy. We have no choice but to traverse those labyrinthian corridors and stand in the long lines, searching, waiting for answers. There is no escape.
In my experience, discussions over coffee can easily involve a friend’s bureaucratic problems. Ask how a friend is doing and you are very likely to get a story about how she is some kind of bureaucratic purgatory, waiting for someone, in some department somewhere to do something that will move her life along. Housing permits, working permits, being able to graduate, seeing a specialist, receiving a paycheck, all of these often hinge on the bureaucracy. 
Who’s Driving This Thing?
In each case there is a cloud of uncertainty hovering over the fate of these friends. No one really knows what the problem is with their specific situation or who is actually responsible for resolving it. In a monarchy, I guess responsibility resides with the king. In a bureaucracy, the bureaucratic state, responsibility is so defuse it resides with no one. I have the feeling that under these conditions any bureaucrat that attempts to burden any of the responsibility for a decision, risks undermining the whole enterprise and the system’s wraith. Or maybe, they don’teven know what to do. 
 You ask the impossible
I think one of the key negative traits of a bureaucracy is when it asks you to provide the impossible. I have the feeling that we can be asked to perform miracles (walk on water, raise the dead) just to get some vital document. One timeI waited four months for a paycheck because the accounting office demanded that I produce a JMBG (Unique Master Citizen Number). I have an OIB (a personal identification number), but that wasn’t good enough. I also needed a JMBG, which was kind of hard since I was born in Oklahoma, not Croatia or even Yugoslavia. 
But apparently, I was more responsible for where I was born than the person, whose job was to pay people, was… for… figuring… out… how to pay people?  It was only after I inquired about getting a JMBG at the Ministry of the Interior, and at my bank, that the accounting office finally accepted what I had told them at the beginning: legally, metaphysically, logically, I cannot possibly have a JMBG. 
Could it be easier?
Now, if we live in a modern state we have to have bureaucracy. We can aspire to the kind Max Weber advocated, a hierarchical system, governed by clearly defined rules. Or, we can get the kind Franz Kafka wrote about, opaque, formless, and well, eerie. 
Some simple changes might make it nicer. Let’s remove the big glass barriers between the bureaucrats and us. What are those things even for? Sneeze guards? Not being able to clearly hear the person you are talking to certainly adds to the whole affair’s frustration. Or how about those doors that only open from the inside? I’ve never seen anything like that until I came to Croatia. If we can’t have real openness and accountability, let’s at least have its aesthetics. Give us the illusion of a light at the end of this maze. That, would be a start.
This post originally appeared on my blog on The Voice of Croatia/ Glas Hrvatske: 


  1. Bureaucracy in Croatia is combination of eeriest Franz Kafka's works, Dante's "Inferno" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street", flavored with bits of finest Japanese horrors. If Steven Spielberg could make a movie about it, that would be the scariest horror movie of all times... in the whole universe... within all dimensions of existence.

    I hope this blog won't turn into some kind of rerun and retrospective of your "Voice of Croatia" blog. It should be the other way around. After all, this blog came before "VoC". :)

    PS 2
    Ok, I get it... VoC is actually your job and Zablogreb is just for fun. But please remember that "all work and no play makes Cody a dull boy". :))
    (pls consider no insult intended - pun intended ;)

  2. What mystifies me a little about Croatian bureaucracy is how variable it is. After 4 trips to Zagrebacka Banka, I never did get my ATM PIN. It took over 4 months to get my temporary residency visa. And why is that the only 2 people in Zagreb who speak no English at all work at the foreigners' desk at the police station? But when I needed a taxpayer ID number? That took less than 5 minutes. And while buying stamps was always oddly time-consuming, paying bills was a cinch.