Smart Siberians carrying plastic Cards: The latest thing in New York, the "smart card," has been used for years in a remote region of cash-conscious Russia.

October 16, 1997|By Kathy Lally >>TC | Kathy Lally >>TC,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Russia is still mostly a cash society. Even cash registers are regarded as suspicious contraptions, though they have grudgingly become more accepted. The prudent clerk often verifies totals with a clicking calculation on the abacus.

There are no checking accounts. People pay their taxes by going to the bank, pulling wads of rubles out of their pockets and plunking them down on the counter. They buy cars by filling up a couple of suitcases with multimillions of rubles and handing them over -- though private sellers insist on dollars, the crisper the better.

Credit cards belong to the future. They are beginning to appear, but only the richest of the New Russians have them.

So it's astonishing to find that remote Siberia has long been a technological leap ahead of the rest of the world. While smart cards -- which have a monetary value stored on a computer chip and can be used like cash -- were being introduced as the latest thing in New York last week, Siberians have been using them since 1994.

Born of necessity

The smart card was born of necessity there. The cashless society had already arrived in Siberia. Employers simply didn't have enough rubles to pay their workers, making a plastic card to which funds could be assigned highly attractive.

Debit cards are not feasible. They require sending information over phones lines, and the lines in much of Russia are so poor they couldn't reliably transmit such data.

The lack of currency led to the creation in 1994 of a smart-card firm called Zolotaya Korona in Novosibirsk, known as the capital of Siberia. Zolotaya Korona issues a plastic card bearing a microchip programmed with the user's bank account information. The cardholder presents it at a cash register when making a purchase, punching in his personal identification number.

At the end of the business day, the merchant can make a single call to the bank, and the transfers are completed.

Adapting to change

"Some people refused to use it at first," said Alexei Maslov, public relations director for Zolotaya Korona. "But, you know, when something is profitable, people change pretty quickly."

Maslov estimated that 5,000 retailers across Siberia use the cards. About 350,000 people are cardholders, he said. The number is growing at a rate of 15,000 a month.

The card has been relatively easy to use because many Russian cities are one-company operations. The main factory employs most of the workers and owns the bank and stores.

Salaries can be deposited, workers can spend them and no cash need change hands.

The cards can also be used at ATMs for cash withdrawals, if cash is available.

In Krasnoyarsk, dominated by a huge aluminum factory, about 18,000 people are paid through smart cards, 14,000 of them employees of the aluminum factory.

Older users resist

"At first, there was much resistance, especially among older people, pensioners and people with small salaries," said Alexander Kitmanov, director of the smart cards department at the METALEX Bank in Krasnoyarsk.

"They refused to take the cards, saying, 'Who needs them?' "

The aluminum factory has two ATMs, and 15 more operate in the town from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The ATM dispenses up to 3 million rubles ($517) to a customer. Forty stores accept the cards.

"At first, I didn't like it," said Anatoly Skripkin of Krasnoyarsk, a 57-year-old aluminum factory retiree. "I thought it was much better to have money in the savings bank. Also, there was the problem of learning the technology. Some older people with bad memories can't remember their code, and they ask younger people to press the buttons for them."

On the other hand, he said, the card saves him time. He can go to a nearby ATM instead of across town to the METALEX bank to get money.

Imperfect system

Andrei Grigoryev, a 34-year-old factory employee, said the system isn't perfect. Many people still prefer cash, he said, so there are always long lines at the ATM machine on pay days.

"The banks still lack cash," he said, "and people have to wait a few days to make withdrawals. The money runs out rather quickly."

Most of the shops that accept the cards are located near the factory, he said. It isn't always convenient to shop there if you live on the other side of town.

"Even now, there are people who are not happy with the system," said the bank's Kitmanov, "but they will have to reconcile. They will finally understand that this is a much better and quicker way to arrange their finances."

Maslov, of Zolotaya Korona, agreed that some foot-dragging has occurred.

But he has a strong argument for using the cards.

"We recommend that people put the question another way," he said. "Take the card now, or wait until the money arrives at the factory for your salary."

As any Russian knows, that can take months.

Pub Date: 10/16/97

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