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Strategies & Market Trends : Countries

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From: Sam Citron12/7/2009 12:25:59 PM
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In Russia, New Times Are Reason for Debate [NYT]

MOSCOW — Vadim V. Vodyanitsky runs a fish processing plant in Russia’s Far East, and one question looms over his day, as crucial as the trawler schedules or the Pacific tidal patterns. What time is it in Moscow, 5,000 miles away?

There are many ways to measure Russia’s girth, but Mr. Vodyanitsky can speak to one of the most compelling: it has 11 time zones, from the Polish border to near Alaska, a system so vast that you can get a walloping case of jet lag from a domestic flight.

The time zones, set up by the Soviets to showcase the country’s size, have long been a source of national pride, but the government is now viewing them as a liability and is considering shedding some.

In today’s economy of constant communication, it is hard to manage businesses and other affairs when one region is waking up and another is thinking about dinner. Mr. Vodyanitsky, for example, has his plant on the Kamchatka Peninsula, nine hours ahead of Moscow, and his office in Vladivostok, seven hours ahead. But his business often depends on decisions by regulatory and banking officials in the capital. “It’s extremely inconvenient getting anything done through Moscow,” he said in a telephone interview. “For any activity, we often have to wait a day, wasting a whole 24 hours.”

Mr. Vodyanitsky, 35, favors reducing the time difference between the Far East and Moscow to ease the strain on industry, but others are not so sure. In fact, the issue has blossomed in recent days into an intense debate across the country about how Russians see themselves, about how the regions should relate to the center, about how to address the age-old problem of creating a sense of unity in this land.

Governments have long tinkered with time zones for political purposes, and at the other extreme from Russia stands China. After Mao and the Communists seized power in 1949, they tried to cement control by mandating one countrywide time zone.

Everyone in China is supposed to live on Beijing time, even though the country is wide enough to have as many as four or five time zones.

Nobody is seriously promoting the idea of a single time zone for Russia, which might lead to all sorts of absurdities (breakfast in the middle of the night in the Far East). But when President Dmitri A. Medvedev suggested last month that the country should contemplate scaling back the zones, he appeared to be offering support for proposals from senior officials in the Far East to trim the system by a few hours.

Mr. Medvedev emphasized that the government had not made a decision yet. But he indicated that revamping the time zones could play an important role in the push to modernize Russia’s economy.

Gennady I. Lazarev, a prominent Vladivostok academic who is a proponent of the change, said in an interview that Russia should undertake an experiment, shifting the Far East closer to Moscow by one hour, waiting a year to allow people to adapt, then moving another hour closer. Further changes would be more drastic but should be evaluated, he said.

“If the time differences were less, then Russia would be perceived by people as a more compact, more manageable place,” said Mr. Lazarev, who is also a governing party member of the regional legislature.

Mr. Lazarev said he believed that the Far East was already two hours off what he referred to as the correct biological time — meaning the time most appropriate for the human body’s internal clock.

The current system does have a crazy-quilt feel. For example, when it is noon in Vladivostok, it is 10 a.m. just over the border in China. In Tokyo, it is 11 a.m., even though Tokyo is farther east than Vladivostok.

Still, proposals to modify the time zones have stirred deep suspicions, especially in the Far East and Siberia, where people have long resented Moscow, much the way people in places like Idaho distrust the goings-on in Washington.

The Far East has a weak economy and a sparse and shrinking population. Residents there often complain about the lack of federal support.

Andrei Gordeyev, 25, an illustrator in Khabarovsk, the second most populous city in the Far East, said that by raising the issue of reducing the time zones, Mr. Medvedev was “throwing dust in our eyes,” an expression that implies an attempt to impress someone with something that in truth is of little value.

“They can say, ‘Oh, we are doing this to help the economy out there,’ ” Mr. Gordeyev said. “But the reality is that if they really want to help us, there are a lot of other, more significant things that they can do.” Others worried that shifting the time closer to Moscow might assist business and government but would hurt people’s well-being, forcing them to spend more of their waking hours in the dark. That factor is already critical in winter, when at the worst there are just a handful of daylight hours.

“We have to look at this from a biological standpoint, how it is going to affect health,” said Yekaterina Degtyareva, 27, a personnel manager who lives in Novosibirsk, the most populous city in Siberia, and often travels to the Far East and Moscow. “If it is going to be a centralized, so-called totalitarian decision, then nothing good will come of it.”

In his remarks last month, Mr. Medvedev mentioned that while the 11 time zones were often portrayed as “a vivid symbol of our country’s greatness,” that notion might need to be discarded.

Perhaps not, said Elia Kabanov, 26, director of a public relations agency in Novosibirsk.

“Eleven time zones — it is an endearing feature of Russia, part of our national idea, if you would,” Mr. Kabanov said. “It is something that distinguishes us from China or the U.S.A., and something that we need to preserve for future generations.”

But Mr. Vodyanitsky, the owner of the fish processing factory in the Far East, said the situation was increasingly untenable. He said the time difference not only caused inefficiencies, but also gave rise to estrangement between parts of Russia.

He said he regularly received calls at his office in the middle of the night from people in Moscow. “They have no idea that we are seven hours ahead in Vladivostok,” he said. “And they get outraged that I don’t answer my phone. They say, ‘How come you people are not working? What are you, lazy?’ ”
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