Over the years, I’ve often thought that the small, incremental changes that have occurred to improve the quality of live in TOL’s coverage region are given short shrift by various “transitionologists”. Preferring to analyze more meaty indicators that purport to represent the depth and breath of democracy (the quality of legislation, the competitiveness of local elections, the number of NGOs, etc.), these academics sometimes ignore all those little things that also represent, in their way, the success of the transition. I’m talking about improvements that, one would think/hope, come as a result of some mixture of societal pressure and enlightened officialdom (yes, there really are people in the state administration that try to make people’s lives better). Those changes, combined, create a more civil society. I don’t mean “civil society” in the way that the term has now become ingrained in the democracy-building lexicon. I mean simply a more civil (polite, courteous, dignified) society.
Take, as a small example, how a country treats its foreigners. Sure, there are local activists pressuring the authorities for improvements, and maybe some foreign business associations, but expats complaining about their treatment aren’t usually going to generate much sympathy across society, at least enough to basically force governments to change their practices. That’s one reason that here in the Czech Republic, I’d maintain, it has taken years to civilize the process for arranging short- and long-term residency permits through the foreign police/Ministry of the Interior. Just take a look at how things looked just a few years ago: absolute bedlam, with dubious types lurking about and the assorted masses forced to stand in a line, stretching outdoors, no matter the weather:
It was with memories of those scenes in mind that I approached, with much trepidation, the task of getting a new long-term residency permit a few weeks ago (I lost the previous one). In the end, the experience wasn’t all that bad and showed a lot of improvement. Here’s my short summary:
A stone-faced but helpful woman offered information and a ticket number, dividing up the foreigners according to the type of passports they had (biometric or not) and countries of origin. The lines were long, but not overwhelming. The Russian-speaking middlemen that I remembered were still around and about, but appeared to be part of a more civilized system. They all had numbers, and waited just like the rest of us. (I judged them to be the middlemen because they all seemed to know each other, offering warm greetings and jokes.)
There was also a big sign (in English, Czech, and Russian) warning against bribery. I’m not sure if that really works as a deterrent or if the English of the would-be bribers is good enough to understand that they can’t use confectionery for illicit purposes. Still, at least it’s there.
While progress had clearly been made, at times the system still exuded a whiff of the old second-class status that foreigners here sometimes feel, mainly foreigners from former Soviet states. People grew frustrated over the length of the lines, and things didn’t seem to be managed as well as they could have been (someone went on a lunch break, leaving just one woman to deal with around 15 people that had been queued up for quite some time). The waiting rooms had no windows and no air. The officials were polite enough but not exactly smiley and warm. But, admittedly, I might be reading all of that wrong. The drudgery of it all could very well be the same in other Czech administrative offices and not reflective of some lingering feeling among the people there that many of the foreigners represent some lower level of humanity. Probably the atmosphere doesn’t differ that much from similar offices around the world (I remember trying to get my driver’s license renewed in New York City).
On entering the building I had noticed a rather older fellow, of possible Middle-Eastern origin, sitting in a wheelchair, rather incongruously. A few minutes later, I found out why. His daughter sat down next to me at one point in the process and started complaining that the building had no wheelchair access and that her father thus had no way to get upstairs to submit his own documents. Luckily, they had permitted her to negotiate on his behalf. Unluckily, her father needed to use the toilet, but, as I said, there was no way for him to get to the second floor where the public restroom happened to be located. As I learned, a toilet did exist on the ground floor, but the man working the front desk refused to let him use it because it was “only for employees”. His daughter was irate, and rightly so.
In the end, then, based on this isolated case study conducted during a few hours of one day in late July, I’d give the Czech Republic a B (using the American grading system) and an incomplete. The B for the progress made so far and the incomplete for the lack of wheelchairs and the insensitivity to an invalid – things that a truly civil society would never permit.