Out of Russia: Being plugged in doesn't add up

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - When a colleague was sent a bill from the telephone company for dollars 130 ( pounds 84) to plug in his fax, he called to ask exactly what 'plugging in' entailed and they told him it meant 'putting the plug into the wall socket'. He said he thought he could manage that himself and the phone company said, in that case, there would be no charge.

Russians are great at plucking figures out of the air to bill, or sometimes to bilk foreigners. Why not? It's the market. Russia is broke. The wonder is the speed with which Russians have caught on to doing a deal. People said they would never get it; that it wasn't in their blood. They were wrong.

No sector of commerce has taken off in the last year like the communications business. Fortunes are being made putting in lines where there were none, and satellite dishes are popping up like mushrooms. There's plenty of scope for a scam.

The phone company is always up to tricks. I needed a parallel line connecting a phone in my flat with my office phone. No problem, said the phone company and sent a man right away.

He spent about two hours doing the job and left. A week later I got a bill for 1,153 roubles, which the phone company said could only be paid through the foreign economic bank and, in those (not so distant) days, it meant that the sum in roubles was instantly transferable into dollars 1,153. I called the phone company to complain. How, I inquired, was the bill made up? 'Ah, well, you know,' said the voice on the line, 'the bill is made up of several parts.'

'I'm listening,' I said.

The calculation the phone company made went roughly like this. 'You see, the telephone engineer's time was 200 roubles and his transport was 30 roubles and the wire was 12 roubles and the plug was three and that comes to 242 roubles. Then you multiply by three'.

'Multiply by three?'

'Yes, we have been multiplying by three since 1990. Then you add co-efficients such as 1.07, 3.64, 0.18 and 0.79 and then presidential tax and the result is 1,153 roubles and 84 kopeks.' I reached for the dictionary to jog my vague memory of co-efficients. In physics a co-efficient is the multiplier that measures some property - of friction, or expansion. In the telephone company co-efficients are to pay off hangers-on, apparently. 'Where do these co-efficents come from?' I asked.

'They are from the government agencies that have to be paid for this job, although they do not actually participate in it.'

The phone company concluded by advising me that they did not accept roubles in cash and that the only way to pay was through the foreigners' bank and that meant conversion of the roubles into dollars.

'OK,' I said. 'You can have the roubles in cash, or I will give you 10 dollars (the then dollar equivalent of the roubles). Which would you like?'

The phone company said they would have to consider. A week later they agreed to take the roubles, in cash.

Since then I have heard serveral outrageous stories of Russian pricing techniques, many of them out of the archives. A television producer wanted a few seconds of a film from the KGB. 'That will be one million dollars,' she was told. When she said she couldn't pay it, the KGB settled quickly for dollars 5,000.

But it does seem the phone company has the edge. My new radio telephone started operating in the summer. I got a bill for dollars 1,600 for July. I queried the bill because I didn't take possession of the phone until 4 August.

'Sorry, new bill for August on the way,' they said. 'Forget July.'

Then the August bill came in. It was also dollars 1,600. I called up. I knew the phone charges had gone through the roof, but this seemed a bit steep. Also I was on holiday for a third of the month. I asked for an itemised bill of the calls made.

'No problem,' they said. 'But that will be dollars 10 extra.'