Who are the Czech Embassies For?
Recently, I wrote an article condemning the Czech government's refusal to allow its own citizens voting rights if they happened to live abroad. In March, poll results confirmed exactly what I had said: citizens of the Czech Republic feel they should have the right to vote even when they live abroad. In the second half of March, a movement was afoot in Parliament to change the electoral law, and it now looks like some positive changes are in the works.
I do not know if Britské listy had anything to do with the change in thinking among some MPs, but I can say that my article resulted in a wave of e-mail responses from Czechs living abroad. In addition to their general agreement with the article about voting rights, they expressed a number of other grievances Czech citizens have with their embassies.
One story concerned Czech citizens getting married abroad. Upon informing the Czech embassy that they were to wed, these people had to go through a veritable gauntlet of stamps and collect piles of signed papers. To have the foreign wedding service recognised by the Czech Republic, the Czech embassy demanded that they prove a hundred and one different things about themselves including that they were not bigamists.
Like too many officials who work for the Czech government, these petty embassy officials inflate their own importance when they know you need something from them. They behave in a surly and condescending manner to their own fellow citizens. They are little men in big uniforms - you know the type.
This case of foreign weddings is near to my heart as I too was married abroad. As an American citizen, I was married in the UK. A few weeks before the service some five years ago, I thought that maybe I ought to call the US embassy in London to see if there was anything special I had to do. Their response was basically "Why are you calling us?"
I asked them if I had to do anything special when, as an American citizen, I was married abroad. They answered that I could send them a copy of the marriage certificate if I wanted, but it wasn't necessary. I asked them if the USA would recognise my marriage abroad. "Of course." came the astounded reply. In future, they continued, should we move to the USA, we would have to show that marriage certificate in order to get my British wife a green card. But when getting married abroad, all the US embassy says to its citizens is "Congratulations" which is exactly what the US embassy said to me.
In many matters, the American way of doing things leaves much to be desired, but I have to say that in the field of public services, the USA has really got its priorities in order most of the time. As another quick example, I recently got a new passport from the US embassy in London. Having completed no paperwork before I entered the building, I left in about half an hour with my new passport. That is efficiency and service.
I should point out that this official attitude towards service doesn't come from Americans being better people in any way whatsoever. Americans simply complain more often. The fact is that if the service was poor at an American embassy, the average American would complain - I certainly would. And if the appropriate officials received enough complaints from US citizens and if the press started to get a whiff of the story, the officials would have to review policies and procedures. The citizens employ these embassy workers after all. One must always remember who's ultimately the boss in a democracy: the citizens.
Looking at some examples from other countries, a relative of mine, a British citizen, recently married a Bulgarian woman. The Bulgarian authorities demanded sheaves of stamped and signed papers and even demanded degrading AIDS tests and proof that they were not bigamists. It took them months to collect all this nonsense. I guess Czech government services can be seen as closer to the Bulgarian example than the American one. That's not much of an endorsement.
You, the full citizen of the Czech Republic, cannot (yet) vote abroad, and in other matters where your embassies ought to be helpful, the officials only seem to put complications in your path. It seems that Czech embassies are not providing decent service to those people who pay for them, that is you, the taxpayer of the Czech Republic. These are your embassies. You pay these peoples' salaries. You should demand better service.