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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wringing Debts From Visas

Many expatriates in Moscow have, at one time or another, tried to assist Russian friends in obtaining visas to visit their home countries. Like myself, the majority have probably faced a brick wall of bureaucracy. Of course, we are all full of suggestions as to how the embassies can improve procedures and wipe out inefficiencies -- and largely at no extra cost. But try as we might, where do we get?


To an Englishman like myself, this is particularly galling. After all, we invented cricket! To those unfamiliar with the game, it is the bastion of fair play, the game of gentlemen, and cheating is definitely not on -- though this last point seems to have been somewhat forgotten in the recent international test match scene.


So what has this to do with visas? Proud as I may be of my country's heritage, it does have its drawbacks. Non-Brits, and particularly Russians, see England as the country of fair play. To them, fair play is not standing in a queue for 4 1/2 hours in the freezing cold with no idea whether they will have to come back and start all over again the next day, no nearer the front of the queue.


Is this the type of first impression the West wishes to make on those visiting our countries? I think not.


Of course, these comments will have the embassies up in arms, trotting out the usual excuses: lack of resources, must be careful of non-returnees, everyone must wait his turn, the Russians are just as bad, etc.


This last excuse really gets my goat! As everyone except the consular and visa departments seems to have realized, the Cold War is over. The rest of us just want to get on with legitimate business and could well do without obstruction from our own governments. So what if the Russians charge those prepared to pay for visas? At least you can get a visa from a Russian embassy within 24 hours without getting frostbite. Has anyone reading this been asked to a Russian embassy for an interview? It's the Russians who, in their own way, are the good businessmen. Putting aside the ridiculous AIDS test law (which I'm sure will be dropped, officially or otherwise, once the commercial implications become apparent), it's the Russians who cope with the lack of resources by charging those prepared to pay.


Meanwhile, you and I are still standing in the freezing cold, wondering why the human race can put a man on the moon but can't invent a coat warm enough for a 4 1/2-hour Moscow queue, wishing some charity would raise funds by selling us a much-needed cup of soup.


So while Russia earns a little cash from those prepared to pay, the West is still fighting the Cold War and asking questions that, if asked at home, would result in lawsuits for sexual harassment and goodness knows what else. What right do the embassies have to play God, keeping married couples apart and unnecessarily spoiling holidays before they have begun with intimidating interviews and anxiety-causing delays?


But I digress. My real bone of contention is the total inadequacy of the screening processes. We all know worthy cases denied visas, while at the same time have seen those who can, politely, be called "undesirables" in their camel-skin Crombies, go straight to the front of the queue.


The point I wish to make is that while keeping out those who are totally bona fide, we let in those whose sole intention it is to cheat our own countries. I write from experience. In 1994, trying to act as a Good Samaritan, I wrote to a prominent Western embassy in Moscow and also to the consular department in St. Petersburg, as I was aware that the directors of a Russian company, who openly admitted defaulting on a rather large debt (owed to a foreign company unconnected but known to me) intended to visit the country in question. I clearly set out the case history, but not only were visas granted, I received no reply to my letters, let alone a call to verify the details.


This sort of thing happens every day. We let in known criminals -- O.K., they haven't been found guilty in a court, but neither has an embassy requested answers to justified accusations -- while destroying legitimate and essential business, ruining the fun of many and tearing apart the marriages of the not so few.


To me, the remedy is simple. Each embassy should establish a debt-collecting department, keeping for itself, say, 10 percent of funds recovered. For those embassies not allowed by domestic law to enter into such activity, this could easily be franchised out. Upon receiving an allegation of a bad debt the embassy or the appointed agent concerned contacts the supposed defaulter and requests either payment or provision of a satisfactory explanation for not doing so within a set time limit. Of course, the system must be protected from misuse, and any explanations offered given a fair hearing -- a more fair hearing, I hope, than is currently the case for single women going on vacation or the provision of marriage visas.


Those companies failing to settle the debt, respond or provide a satisfactory explanation will simply find all their employees declared persona non grata in the embassy's home country until the debt is settled. Moreover, to give added effect, embassies of "friendly" countries should also be advised lest they admit the "undesirables" through lack of knowledge.


Now, I am the first to accept that my solution would be only partially effective. However, indefinite banishment from the Western world is a pretty harsh penalty in the 1990s and should make many would-be defaulters think twice. It gives Western business at least some course of action against bad debtors, and cannot fail to bring those much-needed "resources" the embassies are always short of. At least some "undesirables" will be kept out and assistance given to solving Russian businesses' image of being bad debtors.


Simple, effective, and I await the bureaucratic outrage. After all, as my Russian friends would say, "It's not a cricket!"





Guy Kingston is director of PX Post. The Moscow Times welcomes submissions to Soap Box; please call the Business Desk at 257 3741 or 257 3067.