Mieczyslaw Witkowski: “Working in Belarus is not easy, but possible”
Belarusian business is seemingly very young. Yet, the 25th anniversary of Belarus’ cooperative movement is coming soon. A whole generation grew up after a monopoly of collective property was abandoned. In fact, Belarusian business can boast having a history along with a present day. General director of Ritm company, deputy chairman of the Council for Entrepreneurship under the aegis of the President of Republic of Belarus and one of the country’s most experienced businessmen Mieczyslaw Witkowski tells us about the evolution of domestic private business.
“Mr. Witkowski, you set up a cooperative back in 1988. At the time, doing business in the Soviet Union was absolutely uncommon and mysterious, almost like flying to the outer space. Why did you start your own business?”
“I come from Cherikov district, where my parents still live. I used to work hard since childhood. In 1974 I entered the Kirov Belarusian Technological Institute. As a student, I traveled a lot around the country with construction teams: we worked in Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. After graduation, I stayed at the institute as a social officer. Simultaneously, I studied at the Belarusian State University, completed a postgraduate course and became an associate professor.
When perestroika began, many social sciences lost relevance and many young teachers were made redundant including myself. I had to decide what to do next.
In 1988, together with my younger brother Vyacheslav, we set up one of the first Belarusian production cooperatives. Construction activities were the most attractive to us. Our first order was to repair the roofing at Minsk Gear Works. We lacked staff and experience, and we did all the roofing works with our own hands. Paperwork was particularly hard for us. In May 1989, we were paid our first money. That is how our full-fledged business started.
“What was your parents’ and relatives’ attitude to that change in your life?”
“A veteran of war, my father was older than 90 at the time. For a long time he did not accept the idea of cooperatives. He would tell: “Can’t you find another job?” My wife was also quite unhappy about my choice: “You are a communist!” De jure members of the party were permitted to run businesses, while de facto it was not welcomed.
“Do you have a sense of deja vu about the modern society’s attitude to entrepreneurs?”
“No, I don’t. Today the situation is fundamentally different. Public administrators and ordinary people adequately treat business. Entrepreneurs have found their niche in the economy.”
“Was it difficult to enter the market 25 years ago?”
“It was easy. The demand for our services was really high. Say, we offered to renovate the roof to a factory and they greeted us with open arms. Technologically, we were not very advanced, yet we could mend roofing fairly well. Of course, it looked Soviet-style in a way, but it did not leak, we gave a 5-10-year guarantee.
“Today, it is difficult to find a contractor who would provide a 5-10-year warranty period, despite all the licenses and strict technical regulations. Why is the quality so poor?”
“True, there are all types of regulatory documents, but as I have always said that no license can fully protect a user from junk constructors. Some entrepreneurs behave unfairly not fearing to discredit their good names. In the 1980-90s, people approached their work in a different way: we were enthusiastic and well disciplined. I was taught that one has no right to do a bad job, as it was fraught. I knew that if this happened, we would never be invited to this company again. Recommendations were very important, too.
“Perhaps, to improve the quality of work, the Communist Party with its punitive and ideological apparatus should be revived?”
“You cannot force people to be honest only through repression. Other mechanisms are needed. An employer can improve the discipline, tighten control, but it is impossible to check everything. I have workers who do their jobs flawlessly and on time. Unfortunately, such people are rare today unlike in the past when I started my business. It means that something important is missing in the raising of the youth.”