Friday, January 27, 2006

Doing Business Belarusian Style (Po-Byeloruskie)

The Moterola C115 cell phone
I have been accused lately of being a bit negative in how I depict the things that go on around me. And a lot of these accusations come from the Belarusian side. It has been said by people that read me that I should be more positive in my representation of Belarus. As long as I have this little media space, I should use it for the betterment of the culture. I had always thought that the things I wrote about did help and that one of the reasons I came, you know with the play and all, was to be involved and try and to be the culturally uplifting sort, but this is what they said.

And when these criticisms come, they come in the form of being “rugalled.” Rugat is the translation of yelled at or scolded, how you explain being wrong to a child. And during the Rugations I get, it is also explained to me that I am too loud and that I yell too much. Here, they remind me, you are supposed to stay calm and calmly talk to each other at all times: Belarusians take a lot of pride in that they can stay calm throughout any adversity, they almost never fight with each other and they accept this as a cultural thing. Now I can tell you first hand as a man who lives in an apartment house where you can hear through the walls that this is a bunch of crap. But when it comes to having a chance to Rugat an American, you know, I get the whole story.

But as far as being negative goes, I simply don’t know what to tell you except that Belarus has a way of reminding you of the negative side of things almost every time. People are not really nice to each other. They think only of what money they can take from any given situation and you simply get no extras at all in the form of courtesy or even that you should trust in people. This is not 100% of everyone of course, I know some great people, but the percentage is high enough to create the bile and keep it flowing.

As cases in point I have had two pieces of business go by me lately that are perfect indications of what it is like to do business in Belarus and why I can’t find glasses rosy enough to cover it up- and why I get to shouting. And why not talk about it? This is what my little Being Had media space is for.

The first situation happened to a close friend of mine who I will not name. This friend of mine does what anyone locally would consider large sized business; this means he works in the 10’s of thousands of dollars. Now, to my American mind, it has always been true that when someone draws a lot of water in a place, they are given a bit of right of way, a little respect. But this is Belarus, and apparently, everyone needs to be abused equally and so he ends up getting the short end of the stick pretty consistently.

So thy story goes that my friend has a piece of property that he rents on a month to month basis. The people that he rents from are a private firm that has their hands in several different businesses. Yes, there are private firms in Belarus, though they are few and far between. The deal that was made however was that the rent was not wanted in direct cash payments, but rather that it be paid through the buying of needed materials and other such services so that the cash would never be shown as an income for the firm. The reason for this of course is that the firm did not wish to be responsible for paying the ever-present Belarusian taxes. The Belarusian tax laws, as they are written, stipulate basically that if you have money, you must give it. And if you try and hide money, they will find it, take it and fine you for trying to be smart; A worker’s and a tax-lawyer’s paradise perhaps. Anyway, it had been up to the company to call and say how the “rent was to be paid and up to a few months ago, this had been pretty regular.

Now this is called “under the table business”. We have all done under-the-table business and in fact, other than in university text books, I don’t think you could find enough over-the-table business in the world to buy a bicycle with. Under-the-table is how business is done, everybody knows this and that is that. But the point of under-the-table business is that it is private and between the parties. The moment you do the handshake, you KNOW that this is between people and that all of the problems are to be solved as such.

Anyway, I suppose the winter months had kept the building trades at a minimum, the “rent” had not been asked for and so there was a backlog. How did the firm deal with this? Well, again: This is Belarus. The first thing they did was to copy the style of our oft mentioned fascist building organization and send an eviction notice. You remember these stories about the gardens and the root cellars; this is the way they do business every year. The eviction document was of course dated from a week earlier than it was given and the last possible date to comply was the day before it was presented. Nice yea? Sort of inspires action, right? But what is more, they had decided to go back to the last pre-winter payment that had not been made and ask that a late fee, a fine be paid as well!

Where could they have the audacity to ask for the fine? The part about paying the rent in material purchases was their request, this was their deal. What is this called? Chutzpah? Balls? Where did they get the balls?

So my friend called them, and made an accommodation, and the problem was solved. But that heart attack, the one that came with the presentation of the eviction notice, that is pure Belarusian style; this is called doing business in Belarus.

The second Belarusian Business story is about one of the precious little cell phones. I don’t have a cell phone folks. You wanna call me, call the house. I got e-mail, we got snail mail; it’s enough. But Belarus, like everywhere loves these little money suckers and so does my beloved Tatyana. But of course, like all tiny plastic toys, these things break and require occasional repair. So about a month ago, Tatyana had something happen to the phone, not enough people called, I don’t know what, she brought it to the shop and asked for a repair. The guy said Ok, come back in a week. Ok, a week goes by, the phone is not ready. Try three days. Three days later, no phone, and by-the-way, he is going on a short holiday, come back in a week. A week later, sorry there was a mix up, try three days. Three days later he is not there, doesn’t answer the phone and cannot be found for a week and a half.

So now it has been a month. It is cold outside and so Tanya dresses warm, takes her papers and heads of to the shop in the hope that she will finally get back here phone. This is the first time I am hearing about this because she has been too embarrassed to tell me what a fiasco she is having over a phone I told her she didn’t need. Anyway, the guy is there, hands her a phone, says all is good, collects 21,000 rubles (about $10) and sends her home. Tanya gets home and takes a closer look at the phone and sees that it is not her “new” Motorola, but a used one and a lesser model at that.

So now she is freaking out. She has no idea what kind of crap this guy is pulling; she just wants her phone back already. So she heads back out into the cold and to the shop. When she gets there the guy looks at her as if she is crazy. “What do you want? I gave you a working phone.” Is what he says.

“I want my phone.”

“Well, what do you want me to do about this? I don’t know where it is.”

“Well, I don’t want this one.”

“Ok, so don’t take it.” And as she tells the story to m later at home, he was very, very calm.

So this is about where I come into the story. Tanya is on the bed crying and leafing through her phone papers, trying to decide if the courts will help her out. She calls them and asks what they can do and they say, you know, like maybe in 10 years he might have to pay for the phone. Now she’s running up and down the halls; she wants to call the cops, the mayor’s office...

So I put on my coat. I am an American, or “The American” as it goes around here, I know how to handle these things.

“Don’t yell Adam.” Tatyana reminds me.

“I am gonna yell.”

“Don’t yell.”

“And I am going to hit.”

“Don’t hit!” I road my bike across town to this phone fixer’s office.

The first thing I notice is that the place is like a barn with bits of phones lying all over the place. It’s a mess, no system, no order no nothing; boxes stacked arbitrarily, electronics tools, a soldering iron. Our repair guy is walking around with a set of jeweler’s magnifying goggles on his forehead and he and his assistant are staring at a laptop computer amidst all of the mess on his desk.

“You lost my wife’s phone. I want it found, I want it found now.” They never took their eyes off the computer.

“We’ll look for it tonight. I told her that already.”

“You’ll look for it now!” I yelled a bit. People started to look. “It has been a month. She is now crying. Find the phone.” They still didn’t look up. “Look, admit it: You sold the phone and gave her a piece of crap as a replacement. Cut the crap and replace the phone."

“That’s what you think.”

“Yes, this is what I think!” That last was good solid yell. Had an echo to it. There was a moment of silence, but they still had never once looked up. The next sentence was calm: “Are you trying to find out how angry I can be? It has been a month.” They still had not looked up but I could tell that I had their attention.

“We have to look for it. We’ll do it tonight.”

I pushed the lid of the laptop shut. And again, calmly…

“You have no other business more interesting than looking for that phone now.” This they heard.

“Well, you didn’t need to yell.” Is what he tells me and proceeds to start crawling around on the floor, going through the piles of phone junk, making for all the world the picture of a man who is actually looking for a phone for the first time in a month.

For over an hour he is crawling around on his hands and knees. There are maybe 10 people standing around calmly waiting for their phones, and all the while he is crawling with the magnifying glasses on his head, going through every square inch of the piles of phone rubble. And all the while people are shooting him questions about their phones, and basically to all of them he answers, calmly of course: Well, it is cheap phone. Well, it is a cheap battery. Well this or that is cheap and no good. It is always the phone’s fault and always because it is cheap.

There was one flat-faced teenager who also was standing there waiting with me for the whole hour. Finally I tried to find some humor it, you know, to share the burden of dealing with these idiots. “It’s like a barn here.” I say to him.

“Normalno!” He answers brightly. “This is Belarus.” Obviously his kinship lies with his fellow countryman, the guy who loses the phones.

I don’t laugh. I look hard at him and try again to instill some truth about the situation above and beyond his needing to “rugat” me over local culture: “It’s a barn.” I repeat solemnly. This moment does not make him happy. I have lost politically. First I yelled, and now I am being negative about Belarus. Obviously I don’t understand. Though to me, and equally as obviously, I think I do.

“Ok, you’ve wasted enough of my time.” This to the so-called repair guy, “You lost or sold the phone. I don’t care which. Pay me for it and if you ever find the thing, you can call us and make a deal.” This was money. This they understood. He looked at me from under the goggles.

“How much do you want?”

“$200.” This was a real ka-bang. At first everybody sniggered but then when I didn’t back down, everybody because quiet again. They wanted to know what magnifying glasses had to say. He never stopped looking.

“The phone was cheap. Maybe the cheapest phone made. It was American.” This got a laugh. It was maybe only $40.”

“You are not paying only for the phone. You are paying for my time and for my wife’s and for being rude.” I was loud again. They don’t like this. “You lost her phone a month ago. I have no idea why you need to think of me as a joke here. $200.”

Point made. The assistant made quick phone call. It was to a distributor or a local shop: Did they have a Motorola available? Yes, it was needed tonight. This moment sort of impressed flat-face and the other cell-phone people; I suppose they had never seen the movie where the apes fight back. Probably it was banned as being anarchistic.

“Ok,” He says to me, “we have a new phone for you, is this ok?”

“I’ll call.”


“Give me a phone, I’ll call.”

Tatyana added that she also wanted the return of the 21,000 rubles. Obviously they had not done the work, they didn’t deserve the money. So here was the deal but for the fact that no, I was not going to come here again, they were going to bring the phone to us along with an apology. This last thought dumbfounded everyone.

“Mister, I want to go and have a rest. I don’t want to have to go to your house…” This was the assistant. His girl friend had come and was waiting for him. As I said, it was cold out and obviously, he had plans. Nevertheless, I was loud again:

“Did you think I wanted to come and spend my night watching you idiots wade through all of the shit in your barn for a phone that should have been returned a month ago?”

“Well, you don’t have to yell…” They said they would call when they got the phone the next day.

This morning we got the call from them on time and you guessed it, amazingly enough they had found the original phone. And when goggle head showed up at our door, he explained that the mistake had not been his fault, it was the fault of the “other guy” because he had lost the phone. And so he was not going to apologize because he was really not to blame for anything. Here was the phone, it works fine and therefore he also does not have to give back the 21,000. And he added that I hadn’t really needed to yell because that was uncalled for.

I had several other choice words, none of which I chose to employ. They weren’t needed. We understood each other. After all, this is Belarus.

More soon…