Russia revolt has little effect on visit U.S. businessman clashes with crowd

October 08, 1993|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

Angry communists screamed obscenities and shouted "Yankee go home." Someone even hit him over the head with a stick. But Jeff Collins returned from Russia early this week more enthusiastic than ever about business opportunities there.

"The future looks better for business," said Mr. Collins, head of Project Friendship, a nonprofit group based in Annapolis and dedicated to building economic and goodwill ties to Russia. "We'll move ahead now with free elections."

But other Maryland businessmen are more cautious about prospects. Inflation, a weak currency, an underdeveloped banking system and the lack of transportation pose even more serious threats to business than the political situation, they say.

"If Yeltsin prevails, it is bound to be good for business, but I don't expect any real change for another two years," said James D. McComas, president of St. James International, a Baltimore trading company.

Mr. Collins was leading a small delegation of Anne Arundel businessmen to Russia last month when the problems erupted. But he said the seizure of the Russian parliament building, called the White House, and the subsequent demonstrations and fighting, had no impact on his business. Without incident, he led his group to Togliatti, a city in central Russia, and met with Russian businessmen and local government officials.

After the program ended and other members of the delegation flew home, Mr. Collins decided to stay in Moscow a few days longer.

Sunday evening, after hard-line rebels seized the mayor's office and tried to take over the state's television station, Mr. Collins walked out of the metro station at Pushkin Square with his translator and encountered a group of about 30 angry anti-Yeltsin demonstrators. Mr. Collins' translator told him to keep quiet, but Mr. Collins made a mistake. "I yelled, 'What did you say?' "

Hearing his English, some of the demonstrators descended on Mr. Collins, screaming at him him and telling him to go home. One of them hit him on the head.

Mr. Collins ducked into a nearby McDonald's restaurant for safety, but he says the incident didn't really shake him.

"I've been working in human rights for 16 years, and I've seen a lot of situations worse than this," Mr. Collins said. "I just went in and ate a hamburger."

Despite the violence of the past week, Mr. Collins said he is convinced business opportunities await.

"What happened at the White House is good in the sense that the opposition to reform has been eliminated," he said from his office in Annapolis yesterday.

Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Robert Walker, who has led many state delegations to the former Soviet Union, said Mr. Yeltsin's dismissal of the parliament was a necessary step that will help Maryland businesses in the long run.

The latest incidents may slow business in the short run, but Mr. Walker said he expects it will be followed by a resurgence of interest. "There are great opportunities to sell food and beverages there," he said.

But success is not easy.

Tom Henry of the Maryland International Division said between two and three dozen Maryland businesses currently are working in Russia, but only a handful are making money. "It takes a long time and the players are constantly changing," he said.

In 1990, Maryland exported $40 million worth of products to the Soviet Union.

Mr. McComas, whose trading firm has tried to put together business deals, has worked for two years in Russia. Despite his many years of international trade experience, he said his results in Russia have been only "marginal."

"It's almost more trouble than it's worth," he said, noting that the country lacks a banking and marketing infrastructure, transportation is poor and many of the business people are overly cautious and inexperienced.

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