Russian accountants visit Md. to see how CPAs keep the books U.S. families are hosts to enrollees in classes on productivity

International exchange

September 14, 1998|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

As the ruble fell like a rock and the Duma fought the nomination of Viktor S. Chernomyrdin for prime minister, 11 Russian auditors boarded a plane headed for the United States.

Leaving the crumbling economy behind, they arrived in Maryland for an intensive three-week course in the American ways of accounting.

Politically speaking, this may not be the best time to hold up the United States as a role model. But in financial terms, even with the roller-coaster U.S. stock market, this country is far ahead of Russia, where the government of the emerging free market has yet to learn how to collect taxes and much of the economy is based on bartering.

The visit, which began Sept. 3, was coordinated by San Francisco's Center for Citizen Initiatives, a 15-year-old private, nonprofit organization that receives funding from the U.S. Information Agency.

The delegation's host is the Maryland Association of Certified Public Accountants Inc., whose members are presenting daylong seminars for the Russian auditors.

Meredith Karol, a program officer, said the center's 2-year-old Productivity Enhancement Program has brought more than 800 Russians to the United States to help them better understand Western business practices.

To qualify for the program, the participants must come from 100 percent Russian-owned private industry, be in high-ranking positions within their companies so they can change internal policies, and be willing to share what they have learned with other Russians.

They must also be young and open-minded -- almost all participants are under 50, she said.

"Our mission is to help ordinary Russian citizens, to help their ability to change policies that affect their lives," Karol said.

"The Russian government is not really interested, at this moment, in improving the situation. This is a grass-roots push for reform."

The center has brought over Russians from various business sectors such as bankers, auto mechanics, telecommunications executives and food-storage managers.

"We had a group of bakery owners come over and, during one presentation, a woman found out that one way to attract customers was to put an ad in the paper with a coupon offering 10 percent off to new customers," Karol said.

"It brought her 100 new customers in a week, and it's something that hadn't occurred to them before.

"Another man had employees who were all quitting after six months, and he didn't know how to keep them. We suggested offering incremental raises. These are things that you or I would hear and say, 'Of course,' but it's a new way of thinking for them."

The program has a $3 million annual budget, nearly half of which comes from federal funds. The $1,700 fee paid by each participant makes up another 15 percent, and the rest comes from contributions.

The seminars are conducted by volunteers at no charge, and the Russians are staying with host families, coordinated through Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium, who provide free room and board.

One day last week, during a break from a seminar about accounting software presented by Cornerstone Integrated Systems in Towson, Nina Shevchenko of Volgograd -- the former Stalingrad -- said one of her goals on the trip was to learn more about marketing.

"American auditors know how to do marketing of their companies, and we still don't know how to do that properly and how to use it to our benefit," she said, speaking through program facilitator Irina Zavolokina.

Shevchenko said she is worried about what she'll find when she returns home, although she was confident that she could weather any challenge. When she recently called a colleague in Russia, Shevchenko was told prices had skyrocketed; flour was unavailable and sugar was 10 times its normal price.

"I expect a lot of clients could refuse to invite us to audit them," she said, "and then I won't have money to buy food."

Shevchenko's fears were echoed by Mark Blyth, an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on the political economies of industrial democracies.

"They don't have a functioning tax standard, so does this trip really matter? It's as if they are chipping away at the foundation while the foundation is rotting," he said. "You have to wonder if there's anything for them to go back to. A great deal of the companies these guys would service are going bankrupt."

He said people shouldn't get the impression the crisis is ending just because President Clinton visited Russia and "patted [President] Boris Yeltsin on the head."

"Everyone seems to think the ruble crisis is resolved. It's not resolved but worsening," Blyth said. "A state of emergency was declared by the president and the government has dissolved."

Serguei Fialkowski of Rostov-on-Don, an auditor and auditing instructor, said he hopes he can use what he has learned to somehow help bolster the Russian economy.

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