Read Me First: I wrote this originally while this process was ongoing so I imagine a fair amount of frustration and anger comes through. I've edited the post to reflect the fact that we did eventually get our visas but I have tried to keep the tone the same. This was an incredibly terrible process and I have no desire to sugar coat it just because we got through it. I've had to put a little distance between the events and my posting to even look it over because the whole thing is mostly a mess of bad memories for me. So, without further ado please enjoy...
Well folks you're in for a doozy with this one. I apologize in advance. If you're the kind of person who doesn't want to see things about Moldova that make you sad, depressed or enraged I recommend stopping now.
That picture you see there is my whiteboard's countdown. It was a countdown from the moment my visa got rejected to the day I needed to get myself out of this fine country I've called home for over 2 years. It reflects the fact that for almost a month our living room became a war room dedicated not to our business but to fighting a corrupt and confused visa process just in order to stay in the country. At the end of this process our appeal was accepted and we managed to get visas. Before it did though that whiteboard counter hit zero and went negative. Read on to follow the tale...
"A Tale of 4 Bureaucrats"
Our tale starts where we left off in the first post about visa applications where I posted an update saying that we could get a 5yr visa instead of a 1yr (the first post is recommended preliminary reading as this sorrowful saga builds on many of the same themes of ambiguity, misdirection, misinformation, obscurity and downright rudeness). This information was conveyed to us by a person at the immigration office who, it turns out, is one of 4 gatekeeper bureaucrats who review your visa application before they go before a final commission. This information came as a surprise that slowly dawned on us as it was never explained who was going to review the application. We were told that two departments needed to look them over but it was implied that the kindly woman at the submission window constituted one of those departments. Either that was untrue or she confused "2 departments" with "lots of people."
Anyhow, our 4 bureaucrats. It is unclear what their purpose is. Our theories revolve around the idea that they a.) just redundantly check for document completion (along with the application room receptionist and the person at the application booth) or b.) that they review the applications and make a recommendation to the following commission. Honestly we have no idea but theory a.) is strengthened by the fact that their behavior mirrored the reception woman and the kindly woman at the booth in that they all had totally different ideas of what was required for the application.
it is my hope that cute pictures of dogs and bad puns shall make this post less trying to read
So... bureaucrats 1-3 turned out to be quite nice. One of them was super insistent on our internal document numbering scheme (something we didn't want, they required, and then they judged was inadequate). Another was excited to tell us that as Americans we were eligible for 5 year visas instead of 1 year. This would have been excellent since this process has already consumed over a month and would need to be done every year. Then came bureaucrat number 4.
This man was less helpful. He first attacked our company's capitalization. To some extent his questioning is understandable because the documents in his possession showed only a 100 MDL (just under $7) investment in the company. We had felt no need to provide more updated documents because there is no law requiring a certain level of capitalization for your company for you to get a visa.
...let me reiterate that...
...for all you English major's out there that's what you call some foreshadowing.
Ok, back to our guy. So he's really unhappy with our 100 lei. 100 lei is the legal minimum for an SRL and all we need to prove to be, in theory, visa eligible. He took this clear state of undercapitalization as proof that we were, at best, unserious, or worse trying to scam our way into Moldova (this suspicion was reoccurring - do people actually do that?! *see note at end of chapter). We explained to him that we have an American company that has all of our capital and is really excited to send it (We neglected to end that sentence with ...as soon as your colleagues in the State Registration Chamber stop insisting that they are experts on Virginia Law or, put more simply will allow us to send the money here). Vlad signed an Affidavit affirming that this money was inbound imminently. Additionally we explained that the capital in our Moldovan company isn't 100 lei but 18000 lei at this time. He told us to prove it and we did. A few documents and stamps later we were clear bureaucrat #4. This one had left a bad taste in our mouths though. He wasn't a very nice person and made it super clear he would not approve us for a 5 year visa and had reservations about us entirely.
This may be the time to mention that at literally no stage in the process of trying to get a visa to start a company in Moldova, or the process or starting that company, or the process or trying to invest money into the economy, has one. single. solitary. person said the words: "happy to have you! Moldova really needs investment and jobs! welcome aboard." This in spite of the fact that the government preaches this goal literally. every. day.
I'm unsure that the pictures of dogs are enough to make this less sad. I think I need more puns...
*Update: Evidently they do have problem with people trying to scam the visa process in order to immigrate from areas in the middle east - especially Syria. One theory that was explained to us is that this gives them an excuse to hassle everyone more in order to extract more bribes from them. I cannot speak to the legitimacy of this theory but I can say 100% that we were treated like criminals for a good portion of this process for no reason whatsoever.
"Dear Moldova Why Don't You Want Our $$$"
The title pretty much gives away the gist of this chapter. October 9th rolled around and we took a stroll down to the Immigration Office in the hopes of good news. Instead, we got what even we knew was more likely - no news at all. Mostly confused looks and a vague suggestion to return tomorrow. We did and this time everyone in the office knew who we were. We were barely through the door before they blurted "your visa has been rejected."
no matter how prepared you are to find that the letters from
Hogwarts were just leading you on and that it was just your parents you still cry. It felt something like that.
For those of you who can't read Romanian here is basically what it said.
Under Article 32 para. (5) letter a.) Law no. 200 of 16.07.2010 on foreigners stay in Moldova and there is no basis for concluding, after examination, 1 of 09.09.2014 the administration "SMOKE HOUSE" LLC. for right of stay in order to work immigration US citizen DAVID LEO SMITH.
Additionally it explains at the bottom that we may appeal as stipulated in law nr. 793-XIV din 10.02.2000.
If you google translate that law and look at the relevant sections you will see, rather clearly, that this provides absolutely no information. The law essentially outlines the things you need to comply with in order to get a visa - our rejection says that we violated them. One of them? all of them? who knows. The appeal law is equally cryptic essentially providing for our right to appeal the decision within 30 days. The problem is that this law covers almost all federal agencies and therefore has no process information - each agency is different. How do you appeal then? I asked this. Here was the conversation:
Me: Why were we rejected?
Woman at the Immigration office who just gave us the decision (for brevity we'll call her Linda): I don't know.
Me: Well, how do we appeal?
Linda: I don't know.
Me: Well who do we appeal to?
Linda: I don't know.
Me: When we make this appeal, somehow, to... someone, how long will it take? Can I stay in the country when it processes?
Linda: I don't know.
Me: Will it take one day? two?
Linda: I don't know.
Linda's Coworker: Much longer.
Me: Who does know?! who can tell me more?!?
Linda: I don't know.
Linda's Coworker: [indifferent stare. It said "i could literally not give fewer fucks"]
After this and all of our other ordeals Matt and I really wanted to tear our hair out and say the following to Moldova:
So, what's next? As that nice dialog demonstrated rather clearly I have no idea and literally no one else does. The one thing I know is that as of the moment I got that decision the clock was ticking. I (David) had 19 days left in Moldova on my tourist visa and Matt had just over a month and a half. We had work to do.
It's about time to mention the elephant in the room here. This problem can very quickly go away. It was conveyed to us in no uncertain terms that for 300 euros each this process can be "smoothed." No one asked for this (it came via a trusted lawyer associate) and no one ever asks for or takes your money. Said differently, no one can be caught as this is carefully done. It also needs to be done before the decision is rendered. Based on our previously mentioned ideals this was never going to be something we did. Our current situation could be said to be the result of that attitude.
"What is to be done"
"Calling Everyone We Know"
When you don't know what to do find someone who does. These are words to live by no matter how hard they occasionally smart the prideful amongst us. Moldova has been pretty tough on my pride already so it was pretty much immediately time to set about finding help. We called and emailed lots of people. I'm going to keep this section brief because the next chapter is more informative and moves this strange tale along. The key here is that we consulted many good people from various orgs and agencies to try and get help and information. As mentioned at the beginning of this post I intended to post this as the process was ongoing but held off for a few weeks to put some distance between me and the problem and get some perspective. As such I originally I included chapter 3 here in case anyone reading had a good idea. Literally, any of them. No hair-brained idea sounded too silly at that point. I held off on posting this so this chapter is no longer a call for help. That said it accurately reflects the state of confusion that we were in. We were really looking for a plan...
Once the rocket launches it deploys a flare that alerts the one person in Moldova
that cares that we want to invest in the economy and they ride a dragon to our rescue
Ok ok I know that sounds a bit sci-fi. We all know that that such person does not exist in the Moldovan government.
"All the reasons we suck but none of the reason(s) we were rejected"
In our attempts to gain some insight into what happened to us Vlad called the Immigration Department and requested a meeting with the department Chief. To our surprise they agreed and scheduled it for Thursday the 16th. Talking to our contacts we found that her taking the meeting at all is very rare and unusual so we took this as a good omen. We prepared for the meeting via the aforementioned "calling everyone we know" and managed to get a friend to ask his brother, an immigration lawyer, to meet us before the meeting to talk things over. He basically said that we should go in and politely see what is the problem and how we can fix it. If they give us no recourse we'll got to court (other contacts have assured us that as they have essentially groundlessly rejected us we would almost certainly win in court... but they could drag it out for months).
I have included a short summary of the meeting below. It was a very confrontational discussion in which they repeatedly accused us of either wrongdoing to ill intent in Moldova but never explained on what legal basis we were rejected. As you will see they had serious reservations about our company's capitalization but also admitted that this was not a legal basis for rejection. The outcome of the meeting is that we needed to submit all of our documents for re-review. They had promised to conduct the review in 10 days rather than 30. This was not necessarily encouraging given the process of the meeting (see below).
All in all we were hoping for a friendly, frank, conversation with the director of the department (who studied in America and speaks English!) but instead we found her deputies who were like...
and you are nothing
wait... I've been here before...
Here's a rough transcript of the meeting:
Smokehouse Team (David, Matt and Vlad): introduced ourselves, our company and our intended business in Moldova. Asked "what is wrong with our documents and how do we fix them"
Immigration People: They did not introduce themselves. Had no information about our case. Did not tell us their positions or titles. We gave them xeroxed copies of our packet and reiterated the question: "what is wrong with our documents and how do we fix them." After much shuffling of papers they said that the statutory capital of our company (100 lei - the legal minimum) was too low and angrily demanded how we were going to start a business with so little.
Smokehouse Team: we explained that the statutory capital is only one part of a bigger picture with our capitalization. We directed them to documents in their possession showing personal loans of 18000 lei to the company and a sworn affidavit explaining that we would be transferring the bulk of the investment from the parent US company in the immediate future (greatly delayed because of disputes with another department that are finally reaching resolution).
Immigration People: ignored the documents we referenced. Make a huge fuss about the 100 lei. Asked us if they would be allowed to go to America for 100 lei? I asked if there was a law determining minimum capital investment here (there is not - there is in many countries, not in the USA). They did not respond.
Smokehouse Team: We showed them a bank statement clearly showing our American company's money ready to transfer.
Immigration People: They made a big fuss about how we can (heavily implied "should") just give our Moldovan partner the money and go back to the states.
Immigration People: As I (David) handed over the relevant financial documents (which they refused to look at or take form my hand) they loudly accused me of making a much larger fuss than most people who invest millions of dollars. When I placed the document on the table in front of them (after they refused to take them from my hand) they accused us of being dramatic and making a show.
Immigration People: The woman present viciously verbally attacked Vlad, loudly yelling that this* was all his fault. That he failed to fix this* for the Americans. We asked, again, what is this*? what was wrong with the application? was it the 100 lei? is there a law for that? They agreed that there was not a law and 100 lei is all that is required. When pressed for what was wrong they simply pointed at the refusal document which references the immigration law. This was the best answer we got and is summed up as "we rejected you according to some point in the law." She remained adamant that it was Vlad's fault for failing to fix this*
Immigration People: Agreed to review documents (according to our legal right - not exactly a concession on their part). Ended the meeting. Told us only what their first names were. We asked which documents we needed to resubmit (aka the whole application? just a clarifying document?). They did not respond or clarify - they simply said "all the documents you have." When asked if we can stay in the country while this process proceeds and the man personally guaranteed that we could and if the decision was negative we would have 3 days to leave. When asked if they could say if the decision would be positive they said no.
End of meeting.
*It requires little imagination to understand what our Moldovan partner failed to do for us and why he was deemed to be solely at fault. American's aren't expected to understand the... out of office procedures here but Moldovans are.
"all the documents"
We're not done here yet. We have appeals to write. Documents to gather. Lawyers to hire. Phone calls to make. and emails to write. We're not giving up on the idea of opening a BBQ restaurant here. We're not going quietly.
I wrote that as the ending of the original post when this process was still ongoing. Combined with a major sting of rejection and fear of imminent defeat it summed up our attitude at the time. So here's what we did.
Documents for the Appeal
In addition to a whole slew of documents they already had we submitted the following documents in the appeal. We managed to pull everything together in an afternoon which sounds a whole lot easier than it was and resulted in us literally running to the Immigration Department to submit them before close of work.
As you can see from these documents we were basically working on their concern about the 100 lei in the statutory capital. As mentioned before this for sure wasn't their only problem but it was the only one we could take a whack at.
Getting Permission to Stay Temporarily
After waiting, as requested, until the whiteboard counter almost hit zero I went to the office and got a meeting with the man from the previous meeting to request a document explaining that I can stay until the decision finishes. He was noticeably more polite (see strategy below) and was able to get me a document allowing me to stay until Nov. 24th (one month).
This is the key entry to this chapter. We were told via our back channel connections that we would be denied again no matter what went into the appeal. This isn't specific to us but a blanket pseudo-policy because to accept our appeal would be to admit to a mistake in the first place. Obviously this is flawed thinking but it pervades a lot of the thinking of Moldovan "Directors."Flawed or not though we clearly needed more than just "vague hope" to win this one.
As mentioned before we pay no bribes as a company policy. As such we decided that the best we could do is make it clear that we are more trouble than we are worth to them. We were able to ask people to call on our behalf and inquire about our process and to make it clear that if we didn't get a fair treatment we would not give up here (aka go to court). I know this is all rather vague but the key is that they needed to send the message that we would continue to fight via courts of media if we were rejected without just cause.
The Waiting Game
Commence the waiting game. This sucked.
"time to get back to work"
I won't go through all the back and forth and trips to their office that it took to get the answer eventually (it took 14 days) but the key is that they did eventually give it to us and it was positive. We will likely never know what exactly happened to create this outcome but we can say definitively that it was honest. All in all the fact that we made lots of calls to make it publicly clear that we would be shining a light on this process probably made the decide just not to bother with us.
In conclusion... Being rejected and given neither good reason nor a way to make things right is rough. We always knew things would be hard (though maybe not this soul crushing). Put simply, Matt and I are still here, after two years pushing oversized stones up muddy slopes in the Peace Corps, because we believe, despite all of the (rather obvious) problems, that Moldova is full of opportunity. Put even more simply, we believe in Moldova. We are proud to call Vlad our third partner because he believes in Moldova too and is willing to endure hardship to make it a better place. Moldova made it abundantly clear that it doesn't want us. But just like that stage 5 clinger who gives out those too-long awkward hugs in high school we're just gonna grip tighter. Hey there Moldova, bring it in for the real thing
closer... closer... closer...
This post is far too long but I'll follow it up with a concise set of recommendations for if you are trying to apply under this type of visa yourself. We learned a lot and I feel pretty confident that if we were to do it again we could have headed off a number of the problems. More to come.