Sunday, 22 August 2010

Moscow - good for traffic, tough for business

As Moscow grumbles its way through a summertime traffic meltdown, it’s a surprise to meet someone who brightly talks about how convenient it is to get around town.

But that can-do attitude is a key part of tackling the day-to-day problems many expats face around town.

And it’s a surprising range of challenges, from the big stuff like housing to seemingly minor things like finding an organic supermarket.

For Ekaterina Alekseeva is confident that, regardless of Moscow’s bad reputation, settling into a sometimes baffling new home doesn’t have to be hard going.

“Coming to live in Moscow can be easy – that was my main idea for the business,” she said, explaining how she came up with the idea of Moscow Expat Support. “It can be very easy to live here and work here if you find the right person to help you with a few small issues which can combine to make it very difficult.”

Most of the “small issues” revolve around finding a place to live and getting the kids into a kindergarten or school. Then there are questions about setting up mobile phones, bank accounts and other day-to-day issues.

More offbeat requests might include advice on finding organic food around town or getting a steady supply of Tetley’s teabags to Moscow.

But there are problems more challenging than coping without favourite snacks from back home.

“A lot of people live here for a year or two then leave because they just can’t stand the way business is done in Russia,” Alekseeva said.

“They don’t like the way Russians, work, or Russian companies or even some joint ventures.

“I’ve seen it so often that after a couple of years people feel they have to leave because they find it so frustrating. They want to do things the right way and they find that impossible here.”

And that is something Alekseeva sympathises with, having endured the bureaucratic ordeal of setting up her own business.

“You can never reach a compromise with a Russian business – there’s no such thing as a win-win mentality here,” she said. “To be honest, if I was an expat I wouldn’t come to do business here.”

The “win at all costs” mentality first makes itself felt when expats come to look for homes and encounter what Alexeeva calls a "monopoly" set up for employers and the big agencies, Alekseeva thinks.

This pushes Moscow property prices through the roof and leaves many feeling short-changed.

“Almost all my clients have had a bad experience working with their company’s provider,” she said.

“They have literally nobody willing to act on their behalf and in their interests – instead they are surrounded by people who only want to get as much money from them as possible.”

But expats do come, and finding them a place to live is what drives Alekseeva’s business.

She finds when expats are flown in by their employers they have a clear set of priorities in mind.

“Arbat is 100 per cent what expats want,” she said. “It’s easy to find properties there in the $2,000-10,000 range which most companies work with.

“In my experience most clients want to live around there – and not just because it’s convenient for their work.

“The quality is generally much better and the number of good properties is so much higher.”

And she’s fairly dismissive of the up-and-coming suburban enclaves such as Barvikha along Rublyovka – “It’s ridiculous!” – while occasionally placing clients in up-and-coming districts in the west, such as Myakinino.

Although most clients still favour the city centre, Alekseeva herself has already found her own dream home in a neighbourhood rarely rated as a top location.

“I live with my family in Shchukinskaya and it’s just perfect for me,” she said. “By luck or by chance I ended up living there.

“It’s a simple one-bedroom apartment, but there’s a beautiful view and a park one minute away.

“I’m five minutes from the metro, and I can get to the centre in 25 minutes. In Petersburg it used to take me two hours to get to work

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