By the time we checked into our hotel, cleaned ourselves up, grabbed a couple beers at the local supermarket, and headed out, it was already after midnight. We made it about 10 steps before the police stopped to hassle us.
“No drinking in public” they said the moment they noticed we were speaking English. “Show us your documents.”
Aha! This time we were ready for them!
Like many countries throughout the world, Ukraine requires foreigners to carry either a passport or alien registration card at all times. But unlike most of the world, they *really* enforce this rule. In fact, it’s just about their favorite excuse to pick out travelers and demand bribes – you can bet that the moment an officer overhears a word of English, you’ll be reaching for your passport moments later. Peder’s friend Johnny (the guy who joined us for Brazilian Carnaval in 2008) has visited Odesa several times now; his first time here he got shaken down for nearly two hundred euros, just for going out without a passport. When Peder first insisted that I bring it, I told him he was crazy – no way was I going out drinking with something so important. But in the end he convinced me, and I’m damn glad he did. It wasn’t even ten minutes before the police demanded I show it.
Us: “Here you go, knock yourself out.”
Corrupt Police: “Good. But you’re still breaking the alcohol law. So, please come with us to the police station.”
U: “Wait a minute, alcohol law? Well I have to tell you, just like with the passport law, we were careful to verify before going out that alcohol in public is in fact legal in Ukraine…at least according to our guidebook. Could our guidebook really be wrong?”
CP: “Which guidebook?”
U: “Lonely Planet. It’s one of the most popular in the world.”
CP: “When was it published?”
U: “Less than a year ago – it’s the newest edition.”
CP: “Well…um…the law just started four months ago. Your book must’ve been written before it became illegal.”
Great, here we go again.
Not even half a day had passed since we’d been shaken down for bribes while exiting Transdniestr, and that was only about an hour after the previous shakedown on our way in. Three in one day? I was starting to believe this part of the world is every bit as corrupt as its reputation suggests.
But at least this time one of the police spoke near perfect English, and despite what he was doing, he actually seemed quite friendly. As they escorted us towards the station, I continued:
“OK look, I really don’t know about your new law, but the truth is that we did carefully check before coming out tonight. I hope you can tell – from the fact that we’ve got all our documents – that we have made an honest effort to follow your laws. We’re just a couple of budget backpackers who wanted to see your country, yet despite our good intentions we’ve already been fined twice today for breaking rules we didn’t even know existed. Can you give us a break and not make it a third? We’re not out to cause trouble, we’re not being loud, we’re not drunk, and we’re not criminals. We poured out our drinks the second you asked, and have been as cooperative as possible. I’m even happy to go fetch the guidebook and show you the highlighted text where it confirms that drinking had recently been legal. My simple wish is to experience your country and return home with a positive impression – not a criminal record.”
They stopped walking and pulled us around the corner just before the police station. Well, actually one of them did – the partner didn’t understand English, but seemed content to let his buddy handle it:
“Look, I’m a student too” he said in a quieter voice. “And what you say about the law is true – it was legal until just recently. You seem like nice guys, and if it were up to me I’d let you go. But you see this badge? I have a low rank. The lowest. Another pair of officers reported that they saw you drinking, so if we don’t take you to the station we need to have something to ‘share’ with them. My partner here too, he doesn’t understand what’s going on or what you’ve said. Personally I don’t like having to do this either, but this is Ukraine and it’s just the way things work here. You will have to give us something, or I’ll be the one to get in trouble. 100 hryvnias each.”
In the end there’s no way to know if he was being honest or if it was just another load of crap. Maybe there weren’t any other cops; maybe nobody had reported us, and it was only them who wanted the money. Maybe the whole “no alcohol law” thing was a farce – we had no way to know. But we spent probably 20 minutes talking with the guy, expressing – respectfully but firmly – how negative this type of treatment feels to an innocent tourist who’d flown halfway around the world only to be abused and harassed by the “law.” We came to his country with open minds and a genuine interest in experiencing and learning about its culture. Yet over the course of just one day were being systematically shown that indeed, not all of Eastern Europe is a friendly place to visit. He really did seem to understand, and tried to assure us that Odesa was different – because it’s become so powered by mafia, nightlife, and scandal, it truly is unique from the rest of Ukraine and we shouldn’t expect this type of treatment in, for example, Kiev, the capital city. He assured us that by pulling us aside and taking a small bribe we were getting off much easier than if he’d taken us to the police station to pay the ‘real’ fine for an alcohol violation.
Again, who knows if this was true or not – but ultimately we had to pay anyway. His partner, who stood patiently as we spoke for nearly half an hour, was finally starting to get irritated. They had to get moving, so it came down to “Are you going to pay or refuse?” We begrudgingly handed over our money, he returned our passports, and we walked away.
By this time I was pretty pissed; one abuse was a nuisance, two was disappointing, but three in a single day was just too much. I genuinely wanted to go back to the hotel, pack up, and get the hell out of the country first thing the following morning. “If I’m not wanted then I don’t want to stay,” I thought – “I’m not interested in walking around handing out cash to every cop who happens to notice I’m not Ukrainian.” But Peder convinced me that the night was still young, so after walking around and blowing off a bit of steam, we caught a cab to Arcadia Beach and just tried to forget what’d happened.
After all, it was our first Friday night in Odesa. Better late than never.