Paper Chase

The paperless office remains a fantasy

Remarking about the bureaucratic legacy of Bolshevism in the Baltics is something of a cliche. Sadly, like many cliches it has some truth to it.

The day-to-day business of running a business often falls short of the promises made in the presentational pitches of the development corporations. “Simple” tax regimes can turn out to be quite complicated, invoicing requires a grasp of the psychological make-up of the recipient as much as a list of services rendered and one is frequently laughed at by locals who regard avoiding the various requirements stipulated in law as a matter of principle.

“What? You paid before they sent you a notice of legal action? Haha – only foreigners ever do that!”

All that I can cope with, but what really gets to me is the ridiculous extent to which business remains in thrall to needless paperwork. I call it the “tyranny of the zimogs“, the Latvian word for a rubber stamp, without which your company and indeed your personality effectively ceases to exist.

After all this is a land where you can be asked the question: “Are you a private individual or a legal entity?” with a completely straight face.

It’s always tempting to quote Patrick McGoohan from the opening credits to The Prisoner in reply: “I am not a number – I am a free man!”

Today I went to the Latvian company registry to inform them of a change of address for my business. My company hasn’t moved far – a couple of metres in fact, from one office to an adjacent but slightly larger office, a journey a peripatetic snail could manage in half an hour without breaking sweat.

Hence my company address remains almost identical. Same building, same street, same postcode. Different office number.

On arrival I went to the information desk, said I wanted to change my company address but that the change was very minor.

I was given two slips of paper and directed to the cash desk where I paid 10 lats for the privilege of changing the office number, plus another 8 lats for taking out a (compulsory) announcement to that effect in Latvijas Vestnesis, the official government newspaper that nobody reads. The only place I have ever seen copies is a stack in the parliament building that never gets touched.

You might think that 10 lats plus 8 lats is 18 lats, but by the time the cashier had added the bank’s charges plus an additional charge for choosing to pay by company credit card (in the company registry) the total bill was 22.18 lats.

While at the cash desk I also had to produce my passport and company registration certificate (of course) but I also had to sign half a dozen almost identical green chits in duplicate, which were then handed to me in a bundle after they had been stamped.

Done? Not on your nelly. Having paid for something or other, I took a number form the automatic queuing system and waited my turn.

When my number came up I was sent to another desk where I again had to produce my passport, company documents and then fill in a double-sided A4 form on which I had to make a declaration that yes, I wanted to change my company address (which I’d already paid for), yes I was who I said I was (which I’d already established when I paid) and that yes I was the owner of the company (which they presumably knew as it’s their actual raison d’etre to hold all that information).

Having done that I was handed another chit and told to come back in a week’s time when I would be given yet another piece of paper testifying to the fact that my office had now officially moved a couple of metres to the left.

I don’t have problem with having to produce documentation to prove I have the right to make a legal change, but it seems silly to have to do so repeatedly and make repeated statements about this trivial change. It also seems a bit daft that such a change can’t be made online and requires you to hike down to the second floor of the company registry twice.

It serves me right though, because I already knew what to expect. I went to change my office address a couple of years ago, too. It was such a hellish experience I ended up gathering up my sheaf of stupid paperwork and storming out once the ironically-titled assistant told me that the address to which I was moving did not exist, despite the fact that it was on the fully legal rental contract I was toting and that all the utility companies seemed to regard it as marginally more substantial than Brigadoon.

A couple of months later, I received a letter from the company registry telling me I faced dire consequences unless I obeyed the letter of the law. The letter was of course sent to the non-existent address, which is why I received it. For a couple of days I fretted about the letter, worried that I would have my zimogs impounded.

I told a Latvian friend about my predicament. “Ignore it!” he said. “Only foreigners bother with that stuff!”

I ignored it. I never heard anything more and it seems my address did in fact miraculously change to the one I had quoted, despite its merely theoretical existence.



Filed under Latvia

2 responses to “Paper Chase

  1. News

    The very fact that you could take number form the automatic queuing system is progress in the Baltic States. Five years agao, you just waited outside the (always) closed office door of whatever official you needed to see, in a long corridor full of groups of people crowing around other closed doors. There were 10 other people waiting too, and you asked the time-honoured government office question: ¨Who’s last?¨

    You then waited for your turn, always wondering whether you needed to knock on the door or not, witnessing people not in the queue wander in and out of the office. Bursts of the radio or laughter would escape from briefly opened doors. An official would walk by with an armful of flowers and birthday cards, perhaps a little drunk already at 3.30 in the afternoon.

    When you finally got in, there would be three or four woman (rarely men) sitting at desks facing each other, often with boxes of chocolates on their desks. If it was during the school holidays an eight year old child would be playing games on a computer. If it is between October and April everyone would be earing thick wooly jumpers.

    You would be complimented on your excellent Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonain, and you would feel that your status as a foreigner produced faster service from the officials.

    Ah the memories of bureaucracy!

    Compare to the UK, where many Balts are astounded that much bureaucracy, especially applying for a passport, is actually done by post.

  2. As an addendum, I went back to the registry this week to collect my document only to be told there was a problem.
    “RigaShipStreet is not a recognised address,” said the piece of paper I was handed by a paper-pusher.
    “You have got to be joking!” I said. “Can’t you see it’s Riga, Ship Street? Don’t you know that this city we are standing in right now is called Riga? Not RigaShipStreet? This is insane!”
    “You need to go over there and fill in a form,” I was told.
    I admit I said quite a rude word as I flounced out.

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