Moscow says 'nyet' to rudeness of civil servants

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Seven decades of Communism have left Russia's civil servants with a well-deserved reputation for being unhelpful and downright rude. It is easy to believe that their favourite word is nyet, usually pronounced with unseemly relish before a shutter or door is slammed in the face of yet another long-suffering citizen.

But tolerance of such behaviour is wearing thin and Moscow's city fathers are among the first to try to put the civility back into Russia's civil service. The Russian capital's chinovniki (officials), reputedly among the most brusque in the country, are being sent on an "art of business communication" course designed to encourage them to treat the public with a modicum of respect.

According to the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, those on the course are being taught never to say nyet or pochemu (why) to a member of the public because such words "tire people and put them at a distance". In the next six months more than 800 city officials will also be lectured on the niceties of how to stand and hold themselves when addressing a member of the public, how to dress, and of course how to smile. Officials are reportedly being told to view Russian President Vladimir Putin as a model of how to talk to the public, as opposed to the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mr Putin allegedly looks slightly down and to the left when he is addressing anyone, an approach said to show that he is always in full command of what he is saying. Mr Gorbachev's speech was apparently peppered with too much officialese. In a culture where smiling in public has not always been approved of (smiling too much is interpreted by some as a sign of idiocy) the course's consultants are working hard to get people to use muscles in their face they never knew they had.

"Let's not forget that we're servants of the people," a course leader was quoted as telling participants. "Show that you're ready to communicate by smiling! Even on the telephone."

Many officials still see members of the public as a nuisance while the public regards civil servants as lazy, bribe-addicted good-for-nothings.

Despite this strained relationship, statistics show that the government's love of bureaucracy has grown stronger in recent years. The number of civil servants has risen in proportion to the population by a factor of 14 since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and now stands at around two million or 1.5 per cent of the entire population.

A recent study showed that only 2 per cent of ordinary people and 16 per cent of officials believed that bureaucrats were interested primarily in the prosperity of the country. Equally, 71 per cent of people said they considered bureaucrats a hindrance rather than a help and nearly 90 per cent associated the word "bureaucrat" with negativity.

Corruption is the biggest problem, with many officials expecting increasingly large bribes to do what they are paid (badly) to do by the state in the first place. Indeed a study last year showed that Russians forked out £183bn a year in backhanders and that the cost of the average bribe (now around £57) had rocketed by a factor of 13 in the past four years. So bad is corruption that the maverick MP Vladimir Zhirinovsky has suggested putting CCTV cameras in officials' offices. "We need strict control over the handling of documents as they are passed from office to office," he told Russian television.