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Ukraine: Kyiv Makes A Good Impression

By Katya Gorchinskaya and Tiffany Carlsen

Kyiv, 12 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Polished and groomed, Kyiv is impressing several thousand bankers and businessmen at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development's (EBRD) annual meeting. But, despite the majority of businessmen being pleasantly surprised with the way the event was organized, several recognized it did not reflect the realities of the country.

"I understand that bad news is always best news, but I think the organization of this event is very good," said Pierre Couderq, a partner at Couderq and Kubas real estate company, and one of 3,500 participants at the EBRD meetings. Couderq and other conference attendees were presented with some of the best Ukraine has to offer: brand-new Mercedes coaches and minibuses were always at hand to drive participants from hotels to the various venues. Conference sites were fully equipped with e-mail access, phone services and air-conditioning, and simultaneous translation was provided in at least two languages during sessions. There were also various dinner parties and social gatherings hosted for participants by Ukraine's Prime Minister Valery Pustovoitenko and other top government officials.

"From the moment I arrived, the service has been excellent," said Erik Holtedahl, director of Eastern European operations for SND, a Norwegian investment fund. "The arrangements and professional content of the lectures are at least as good as last year in London." EBRD Secretary General Antonio Maria Costa said that smooth organization created a favorable impression of the event. He said no official complaints have been received from either the delegates or guests. "Because the stakes are high, the Ukrainian government realized that it had better be good," Costa said.

But, even so, the reality of bureaucratic red tape and corruption, which is rampant in Ukraine, crept into the conference.

Costa says, "To organize (the event), we need a partner with a good entrepreneurial spirit. In Ukraine, when we ask for a supply of something which we would get in New York or London in a day, they organize a committee meeting with three subcommittees. It's been tough to make Ukrainians understand the complexity of a meeting of this sort," he said.

Costa said, in general, Ukrainians helping with the annual meeting lacked entrepreneurial spirit. For example, he said the event organizers didn't find a caterer until just a few days before the conference began. And, once they did, he says, even more problems arose when the company realized how much they could profit off the event. "They charge a fortune for a cup of coffee - they started from 50 cents, and then they realized that there is a fortune to be made, and every day the prices have been going up," Costa said. "They don't understand that even a monopoly has to be controlled, they just keep jacking up the prices. They are barely learning with capitalism here."

Few businessmen complained about high prices, however. "I didn't even check the prices - it seems like I pay here what I normally pay in Kyiv," said real estate executive Couderq, who has been coming to Ukraine on business for the last two years.

Among themselves, however, participants voiced frustration about poor service, long lines and absence of change - problems common in Ukrainian cafes in general. "Bad service... is due to the fact that for so many years Ukraine did not have tourists," said Constantine Kanonis, alternate general manager of Commercial Bank of Greece. "To be able to achieve even this kind of service is still very good."

More complaints might come up when some businessmen receive their telephone bills. A local Ukrainian journalist, observed by RFE/RL reporters, watched as one of the businessmen enter his pin code on a telephone at a conference site, and then the Ukrainian journalist used the code to call his friends. "I wrote it down, and I will use it to make more phone calls overseas," he said.

Pin codes weren't the only things being stolen. EBRD organizer Costa said bathrooms were running out of toilet paper much too quickly. "People were stealing the toilet paper," he said. "We had to make sure there was enough for all the foreign businessmen.

One of the most talked-about issues before the conference - the standards of Kyiv's hotels - was also a well-discussed topic among businessmen. From cold showers, to small beds, to overpriced rooms, to short breakfast hours; participants' experiences were not surprising for a capital city that lacks five-star hotels.

"Hotels are over-priced everywhere, but my room is better than the one (I stayed in) in Rome last week," said Jean-Louis Renaud, an economist for the Export Development Corporation in Canada. "My expectations were not very high, because there was an expectation that things weren't that good here. But everyone, including myself, is absolutely stunned. Kyiv is making a good impression."