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People and Business in Siberian Irkutsk

Irkutsk, Russia, June 28 (RFE/RL) -- Galina Konstantinidi never thought she would start a business. For a trained economist with a steady job at the state bank, a husband and a young child, life seemed already settled. But then Communism fell in Russia and everything that had seemed settled suddenly became very uncertain.

Galina decided it was time for a new start. She wanted, she explains, "to test myself for the first time in my life." She quit her job, left her husband and signed on as a distributor for an upstart office supply company called Grafika M.

There was one problem: Grafika M was in Moscow and Galina was in Irkutsk, 5,000 kilometers away in eastern Siberia. But that did not stop her. Galina took orders in Irkutsk, enlisted three friends, and flew to Moscow with several empty suitcases. She came back with an assortment of pens, inkpads and staplers. They sold out within hours. Galina had become one of the first businesswomen in Irkutsk. That was four years ago. Today, Galina Konstantinidi runs Grafika M Irkutsk from a plush office suite outfitted in the latest Scandinavian furniture. She has 30 employees and two retail stores. The cellular phone never leaves her side.

"We've reached a new stage in our business," she says, "but every year has been a struggle. Now that there's more competition, we've got to attain a new level of quality. That's what we're striving for, but I think we're going to get there." Galina travels widely now, from Korea to the United Arab Emirates, always learning, always picking up new tactics. It is not easy. Government taxes still swallow up 80 percent of her profits and as for the local mafia, they also demand their share. Galina says there is no choice but to pay them protection money.

She explains, "The government doesn't defend us and so we have to constantly compromise - just to stay in business." But despite the difficulties, Galina is optimistic. "I believe in Russia and want to live and work here," she says, adding, "after all, I still remember standing in line with my daughter for milk rations - and that was less than a decade ago."

Nikolai Ivanov is barking orders into the phone from his office on the outskirts of Irkutsk. His desk is filled with phones. Ivanov wears a double-breasted burgundy suit and yellow power tie. He is the general director of the Baikal Business Center, a 22 million dollar office and hotel complex that will open this September on a lot near the airport.

The building, a ten-storey ultra modern chrome and glass complex, is already the first of its kind in eastern Siberia. Ivanov means to make it the headquarters for top Western and Asian companies. Several of them, including the American telecommunications giant AT&T, and the Korean conglomerate Daewoo, have already paid their rent deposits.

The project is being funded by IrkutskEnergo, the region's monopoly energy supplier and its largest employer, in partnership with a local trading firm called BaikalSnab. Both companies expect to regain their investment in little time. The construction workers are from the former Yugoslavia, the building materials from Germany, Italy and Turkey and the business center's Russian staff will be trained by a Belgrade consulting firm.

Irkutsk has never seen anything like it. Ivanov says the city should be grateful for his efforts, but he wants its bureaucrats to stay away from the project, lest they "mess it up" he says, "as they always seem to manage.' Despite its prospering new capitalists, Irkutsk still has a way to go before it can equal its turn-of-the-century reputation as a mercantile center. And the city's decrepit Soviet infrastructure will take even longer to repair.

"We're still two years behind Moscow," says Galina Konstantinidi. Modern goods are almost all imported, as Irkutsk, like all Russian regions, lacks any kind of quality light industry. Nevertheless, store shelves are full, and for a landlocked city whose nearest foreign neighbor is Mongolia, that is an achievement.

More than that, Irkutsk, which once stood on the periphery of the Soviet empire, is now plugged into the world community. The airport offers direct flights to Japan and Korea, and not just Moscow. The Moribund Intourist Hotel, which stodgily upholds its reputation for Soviet-style service, has made one concession to progress and now broadcasts CNN.

Dozens of non-governmental organizations have stepped in to fill the gap left by the state and now provide everything from free legal advice to counseling on educational opportunities abroad. Door-to-door toothpaste and shampoo salesmen have even started to become a nuisance downtown. To be sure, this link to the world remains tenuous and it coexists side-by-side with rusting factories and wounded pride. But the pull between Slavophiles and Westernizers has been the defining feature of modern Russian history since Peter the Great. And since that time, so has the coexistence in Russia of obsolete and brand-new technologies.

Sometimes, progress is best measured at the most prosaic level. Maria Safonova, who runs a local non-profit information center, says she remembers craving bananas when she first visited America. She noticed the bananas were sold in large bunches in every grocery store, but no one seemed to especially want them. It struck her as strange.

But upon returning to Irkutsk, where bananas were now for sale on every street corner, Safonova discovered to her great amusement that she no longer craved them.