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Monday, June 23, 2008

Annals of Neo-Soviet Russia: Mailing it In

Georgy Bovt, writing in the Moscow Times:

There was no line as I stepped up to the express-mail window at Moscow's Central Post Office on Tverskaya Ulitsa. The attendant was a middle-aged woman wearing a standard-issue blue smock. In the glorious, time-honored Soviet tradition, she responded to my "hello" with stone-faced silence. I had to send some boarding passes and receipts to Brussels for expense reimbursement to a European organization that had invited me to a conference. I decided to use the express-mail service just to be sure the documents would be delivered at all.

"What do you have?" the woman snapped at me.

Having no need to keep my correspondence a secret, I showed her the rumpled papers.

"We don't take official documents or tickets," she said. She told me submit the paperwork to the postal customs office -- the only one in Moscow, apparently -- on Varshavskoye Shosse.

"But these aren't official documents," I protested. "They are just used tickets and some taxi receipts." I suggested that she call her superiors to resolve the matter. She refused, but I insisted. Finally, she gave in and lazily made the call.

In the end, the situation was resolved in my favor, but during the whole experience, I found myself back in the Soviet era. I encountered the same rudeness from state employees, saw the same ancient equipment, filled out the same archaic blanks and submitted them to the same type of unfriendly woman who looked as if she hadn't smiled since Yury Gagarin beat the Americans to space.

Former Sberbank CEO Andrei Kazmin was recently appointed as the new head of Russia's postal service. He is requesting billions of rubles in state funding to institute reforms, pointing out that mail carriers' salaries of 5,000 rubles (about $200) per month are shamefully low.

But this leads to a more fundamental question concerning not only the postal system, but many other Russian companies and government bureaucracies. Will throwing money at these institutions help them and their employees to become more effective?

Unfortunately, money alone cannot change a person's mentality. For example, I pay a mailman a little extra to deliver a particular magazine to my door instead of leaving it in the lobby, where it can be easily lifted. The result? The magazine is never delivered on time, and I end up having to go to the local post office to sort things out with the mail carrier. "Why haven't you delivered the magazine," I asked once. "After all, I gave you money for it." He replied lackadaisically, "That's life, I guess." Even with his miserly salary, it appears that the postal worker doesn't want to work for the extra money that I am willing to pay him.

Despite significantly lower salaries, average postage prices in Russia are only 10 percent to 15 percent lower than in the United States and New Zealand, and 30 percent less expensive than in Germany. Moreover, delays of a week or more in the delivery of periodicals have become common, even in major cities.

The postal system behaves like my listless mailman -- it lacks the motivation and the ability to turn a profit. It has yet to earn money from mass advertising (otherwise known as junk mail), and it does not know how to generate additional income by cross-marketing consumer goods using its expansive postal network, although such sales account for the bulk of postal-service income in several foreign countries.

Even if postal workers' salaries were tripled, I seriously doubt that the sour-faced woman in the blue smock, or any of her co-workers, would give me a friendly smile.

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