Cablegate: Small Businesses Report Some Easing in Corruption


DE RUEHMO #2981/01 1710759
O 200759Z JUN 07

C O N F I D E N T I A L MOSCOW 002981



E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/13/2017

Classified By: DCM Daniel A. Russell for Reasons 1.4 B and D.

1. (C) Su...

1. (C) Summary. Corruption is arguably the Russian economy's most pressing problem. For larger economic actors and individuals, corruption continues to trend upward relentlessly. Yet, interviews with more than forty entrepreneurs working across Russia over the past year suggest surprisingly that the small and medium business sector (SME) is moving away from cash bribes and that the voice of the SME community is being heard in government policy circles. SMEs now have more transparent registration processes, a more stable security situation, and fewer inspections. However, these same interviews confirm corruption remains most acute in subcontracting, procurement, and real estate. End summary.
2. (C) Interviews over the past year with more than forty SME entrepreneurs (producing everything from cutting-edge encryption software to reindeer-fur baby-booties from Smolensk to Chukotka) suggest some abatement of the corruption demands they face. While our survey is not scientific, we were surprised that most of those we interviewed said they do not pay cash bribes to anyone anymore. Five years ago, entrepreneurs had to pay off organized crime in order to keep their businesses from being burnt down, but none of the SME entrepreneurs we interviewed still cite this as a problem. They told us that the registration process (though not fully "one-window") has become faster and more transparent. Inspections (a major source of bribe-taking) are also down. Depending on the sector, inspectors are now coming every quarter or six months and in many cases actually inspect what they are supposed to. Finally, many small businesses needing credit to start or expand are moving towards formal accounting for all revenues and expenditures in order to meet bank requirements, making it harder for bribe-seekers to gain advantage.
3. (C) An emerging rule of the game expressed by many of our SME contacts is that if you follow the rules and stay away from middlemen facilitators, you don't have to pay bribes. Olga Fomina, who started a special taxi service for women and children called "Pink Taxi" obtained information from the Moscow City website about steps to start a business. She looked into hiring an attorney, but realized she could do it herself in less time (about a month), for a quarter of the cost. The hardest part of the process was rounding up paperwork (something she would have had to do for the attorney anyway) but the steps were simple because she followed the instructions carefully. She might have finished faster and done less running around if she had paid a bribe during the process, but she refused to do so because she wanted to protect her company's long-term reputation.
4. (C) Tortilla Chip manufacturer Solntse Mexico and glass table manufacturer ArmaDecor both told us that the inspection processes are not nearly as cumbersome as they used to be. Solntse Mexico told us that sanitary and phyto-sanitary inspectors come every quarter to inspect their facilities. Once the company was written up for having an improper ventilation system. The inspector gave them a warning and some time to rectify the problem. Solntse Mexico acknowledged that the inspector was not asking for a cash-payout as he would have a few years ago; only that the company fix something that did not meet standards.
5. (C) ArmaDecor had a similar experience. Because the company uses very heavy machinery to mold molten glass, it is subject to special inspections related to the labor code every six months. ArmaDecor was told by inspectors in the past to replace old equipment and control heat and noise levels on the production floor and worked towards making necessary improvements. The inspectors, according to ArmaDecor, would not have accepted a bribe, even if the company offered one. Both Solntse Mexico and ArmaDecor told us that the regulations are so complicated, the inspectors are likely to find something wrong each time they visit. But, if an entrepreneur makes it very clear to the inspector early on that he/she intends to operate above board, claim these two companies, the inspectors will not seek bribes.
6. (C) Mr. Viacheslav Tsai started his home theater store after taking free entrepreneurial classes from the South East Ward of the City of Moscow. He found the classes particularly helpful in teaching him how to file his taxes. He learned how he could benefit from the simplified taxation scheme for small businesses and has since followed it to the letter. Other colleagues from his classes have had problems with mistakes on their tax returns and have settled it by paying off the tax police, but Mr. Tsai says doing some homework saved him that hassle.
7. (C) Small business entrepreneur Dmitriy Izvekov told us that applying for, receiving, and maintaining credit at the SME level requires clean accounting. He applied for a $150,000 loan for his plastic wall-siding company DekoPlast and was turned down repeatedly. Working through the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development's Russia Small Business Fund (RSBF), he was finally able to write a detailed business plan and implement the internal accounting mechanisms to get the credit he needed. His business has since grown from backyard enterprise to international exporter. Clean accounting has also reduced bribe seeking opportunities by regulators and taxmen.
8. (C) Some of our SME interviewees have moved away from cash payments to officials. [ ] pizza and catering company in Novosibirsk. He told us the wife of Novosibirsk's Governor is constantly asking his company to provide free catering services for charitable social events. [ ] ends up writing these evenings off as charitable tax-deductions. [ ] competitor, a coffee shop owner, was asked by the regional government to outfit the fire brigade with new uniforms and equipment each year. Though that ought to be covered by tax revenue, [ ] competitor jokes that the firemen now come for coffee in the shop more often.
9. (C) Many entrepreneurs from medium-sized business (100-500 employees) say that, while they oppose corruption, it can be difficult to ensure that every employee shares that philosophy. Sergey Riabokobylko, a partner in a successful real estate company, told us how he fired an employee who had colluded with an outside business to award that company a contract in exchange for a kickback. Not only was the arrangement damaging to the firm, the losses continued as the company had to retain legal counsel to deal with the fired employee and then hire and train a new employee. Unfortunately, this sort of business-to-business corruption is a common problem for firms of this size. Several of the "SME Successes" we have interviewed tell us that they hire outside auditors to scrutinize their procurement and accounting departments before tax season to catch any wrong-doing and rectify financial discrepancies
10. (C) If there is one area in which even the cleanest SME will resort to paying bribes, it is real estate. Businesses have told us that bribes are required to win the bid for a site, get permits to develop it, get the site hooked up to the municipal electric and water supply, and construct buildings. The firms we have talked to say they would never try to do this alone, and generally hire a connected construction firm to handle these matters. Some medium-sized companies backed out of transactions after the final sum overshot original estimates significantly. All of the entrepreneurs told us that they assume construction companies are paying large bribes to government officials throughout every step of the process, but they prefer not to know about it.
11. (C) Comment: While high-level and individual corruption continues on an upward trend, some small and medium-sized businesses clearly see the virtues of corruption-free operations. The examples cited above show that it is possible to start and operate a clean business with the possible exception of real estate acquisitions for growing firms. While our anecdotal survey is not scientific and really crooked entrepreneurs are not going to come clean with us, five years ago the situation was clearly worse. We believe that part of the reason for the improving environment is the influence of SME business groups, like OPORA, the All-Russian Association of Small and Medium Businesses. End comment.

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