I know that when I go off, I get all kinds of people telling me again and again how my world view is naïve and how I really should know better by now, but simply, I can't help myself from thinking that the number one thing that needs to be in place for a bank to exist is for there to be at least some element of trust between for that bank and those who would leave their money there. Perhaps that doesn't apply in Belarus, or perhaps the world has changed so much since I have been away that it is all like this, but in any case you would think that this would have to be so.
Ok, so here is the story: a couple of week's ago I went to Belagroprom Bank, one of the banking chains in Belarus to change some money. This was on Tanya's birthday I guess which is why I was dealing in such a large amount of money- but this is neither here nor there. I went up to the second floor of the big, central Ploshad Kirova location and plopped two $100 bills on the table to be changed into Belarusian rubles. There was a young girl behind the glass and she smiled at me as she took the money and checked the bills under a florescent light- we do have problems with counterfeiting here. Now, Belarusian money trades for about 2150 to the dollar and has been like this for about 2 1/2 years now so pretty much everybody knows how to do the dollar conversion in their heads. Seeing that the bills were fine, she smiled at me again and then counted out about 215,000 rubles, the exchange rate for $100 and handed them to me.
"Excuse me miss, how much money did I just hand you?"
She looked shocked and then offered a small coquettish grin and apologized and started to count out another hundred. I looked at the woman next to me in line. She was offering me a "Yes, this is how it is in our country" look on her face.
"Well," I said to her, "It is not like she did this especially, right? It is not like they hire bandits to work at the banks, right?" From this I got the slightest of nods from the woman in line showing me that she understood the concept of irony- and that, of course, I should stop being so naïve. One more flirty smile from the girl across the counter and she handed me the correct money.
I said thank you and left and I honestly didn't think about this episode again until this past Wednesday when I had another opportunity to go to the bank to change a bit of end-of-the-month money for simple things like bread and milk. I took $40, two 10's and a twenty over to the Belarus Bank around the corner. Belarus Bank is the largest chain in the country.
I gave the three bills to the girl behind the counter and she stuck them all under the lamp. Then, in a rather showy demonstration of distaste she flipped and shook the tens a bid, ran her fingers along the paper as if she was sampling material and glared at them with serious distaste. She looked at me and shook her head one time and raised an eyebrow, showing me that something was obviously wrong with the bills. She then went over to the next window and asked a question of the girl sitting there. Perhaps this was her boss. When she returned she explained that the notes were not so good, they were very worn and so forth, and that because of this she needed to charge me an additional 4%.
"What are you talking about? There is nothing wrong with the notes."
"The paper is worn and doesn't seem right." There was not even as much as a fold mark on either of the bills.
"Lady, I got these bills from this bank!"
"Maybe in America these bills are good, but here you must pay an additional 4%. These are the bank rules." She said.
"Give me back my money." I said. She didn't seem to understand and handed me only the tens. "No, all of it. Give me my money back."
She acted as if I was being very rude but she did and I took the money, turned and left without even a Do Svedania.
They had played this 4% game with me once before but I had argued the girl out of it and they gave me full value. I guess that she had felt guilty at that time. But this time, the cashier seemed to be taking pleasure in it. I guess mercy turns sour after a while just like anything else. In any case, this was not the only bank in town and not the only people who change money so I simply walked over to the Belagroprom bank on the ploshad to try with them.
I went up to the second floor and pushed the three bills through the window.
"All in Belarusian?" the nice older lady asked.
"Yes, please." I watched as she checked the two tens and the twenty under the light and then, with a bit of a grimace on her face, counting money can be a chore I supposed, after a second check that her numbers were right, the woman pushed over to me a little more than 60,000 rubles.
"Lady, for G-d's sake, how much money did I just hand you?" She looked up at me very shocked. I pushed the money back through.
"I don't understand?" She said.
"Oh come on! Look me right in the face and tell me you do not remember me handing you two tens and a twenty. Tell me right here and now that you can't find the mental picture of three bills being run under the lamp."
"I remember it was three bills but I will have to check. If I have made a mistake, I will find it. But I assure you that I have done nothing wrong." Her hands were shaking.
"You guys did this to me a couple of weeks ago. Are you telling me that your bank is making a habit out of skimming money out of your exchanges?" She was making a really big show of counting the money which was actually pretty funny because the three notes that I had given her were still separate from the rest and so she had to actually add them into their proper piles to make the count. After a moment she had gone through all of her American money and had, halleluiah, discovered that yes, she had indeed made a little mistake.
"If I have made a mistake, I am sorry. But I assure you that I did not do anything especially. I am not a criminal." I wanted to tell her to tell it to the judge but I just showed her a contemptuous face and left.
When I got home I told Tanya about the whole incident. She said about the 4% that this was not the fault of the girl but rather a rule of the bank. Tanya always takes the other person's side in ay argument.
"But your biggest mistake," she said "was in trying to go to our banks. Go to the market to trade money."
"You mean I should have gone to the guy who stands out in front of the bank and trades for your money out of his pocket?"
"Yes. He never cheats you…"
"Yea, he's fast too. No line, no waiting, no paperwork."
"Why did you go to the banks in the first place?" In this moment I indeed felt very naïve. I actually thought that this money changing business was dead since the ruble became pegged to the dollar 2 ½ years ago. But Tanya went on to explain to me how this street dealer makes the money on the difference between the buying and selling price. Even though he actually pays a slightly higher percentage than the bank, he can still find enough of a percentage on the sell to make his living.
"He probably makes more than $100 a day selling money." She added, "Why can't you make this money?"
"You're right." I said. "I don't know what I could have possibly been thinking of." Tanya went to banking college back in the day. I guess this is why she is so up on all of the corruption angles.