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Focus on Safety

I walk forward and shake the new director's hand. He gives me a strong handshake and gestures toward the chair for me to sit.

We apprised each other coldly. There is no warmth in the room; this having nothing to do with the fact that it is February and two of the office's windows are open. The director leans back in his chair, and lights a cigarette. He exhales loudly, picks up a pen and stabs it at a pad of paper filled with handwritten script. He turns to me and begins to speak. I maintain eye contact with him, trying to gauge his temper as he delivers the message of welcome I have heard from every director of a state factory I have ever met with. His welcome is is brief. Youri shifts in his seat and prepares to translate.

"The first thing we must discuss is the price increase for this year," Youri says nervously.

Some welcome.

I take a moment to compose myself. It is crystal clear that we are not going to get along. The director's eyebrows lower ever so slightly as he awaits my response.

Is this a Kruschevian tactic? In the 1960s, young President Kennedy had a memorable meeting with Nikita Kruschev, the then secretary-general of the Soviet Union. Kruschev considered Kennedy to be a "boy" and entered into the meeting with every intent to test his mettle. Afterward, an ashen-faced and shaken Kennedy told his advisors that he had never been talked to in such a way in his entire life.

Bullying has been an eastern-european negotiation tactic for centuries. I leaned forward and spoke to the director face to face. "If that is the case, then our meeting will be very short. I can save you and everyone else concerned a lot of time because a price increase is out of the question."

I then proceeded to explain that I had come to ask for credit for 660 Music Makers which arrived at our warehouse with completely split sides. The factory had experimented with the amount of glue they were using, and had sent me zithers made with an insufficient amount of glue.

"Quality is something that can always be discussed," the director said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "The factory experiences inflation levels of 300% on a bi-monthly basis. Electricity is more expensive, heat is more expensive, raw materials are more expensive. There must be a price increase."

I shot a quick glance at Vladimir, who had been prepared to play his part in the meeting process (though I never thought he would have to do so this early).

"If that is the case, why hasn't the retail price on the domestic market increased?" Vladimir asked. "The price has not changed a bit in all these years, inflation or no."

Youri's face clouded over. It was at this moment that a mutual dislike was born. The director cut in and angrily pointed at all the figures written on his notepad. "Electricity, up 400%. Raw materials, up 212% Lacquer, up 186%." The list went on and on, each punctuated with a loud stab of his pen.

"But neither the retail, nor the national wholesale price of the product has changed," I pointed out. "Why is it that only your American client must suffer a price increase?"

"I also wish to point out that your saying that 'quality control problems can always be discussed," does not present a resolution to my request," I noted. "I would like this to be resolved during this meeting."

A long silence hung over the room. Battle lines had been drawn. We then began what turned out to be a long, difficult and unpleasant meeting.

Time flew by. Hours took minutes. I was never offered tea, as I had been before. They didn't even offer me any killer mineral water (a serious miscalculation on his part, I still believe to this day). I noted that the shadows outside had drawn long, and that the intensity of the light had changed. It was late in the day. Workers left the factory in great groups. People gathered at the bus stop on the corner.

"It is enough for one day," the director said, putting down his (well-used) pen. We had discussed the price increase (there would be none) and the credit for the poorly made zithers (to be credited immediately) as well as a variety of issues. The director had seemed to soften the longer we met together. I had the impression that, while we may not have liked each other very much, perhaps the foundation for a mutual respect had been laid.

"Youri will take you to your room, and I will meet you there for dinner in fifteen minutes," the director said. "I must sign a few documents first and will be with you shortly." All of us pushed back our chairs, stretched stiff muscles, and shook hands.

Vladimir and I said goodbye outside; he would return to Minsk for the evening.