Negotiating With Russians

Negotiating is a very serious business for a Russian because just about everything requires negotiation. I suspect, again, that there’s something genetic in this and that most Russians are simply born to negotiate. That may help to explain why negotiation is still a rather conservative business. There is a lot of theatre in any negotiation — and Russians are a truly artistic bunch (not for nothing have Russian culture and arts had a major impact on world culture). Not for nothing is the premier theatre in Moscow — and Russia — called the Bolshoi, or Big Theatre. This means that you need to be aware of several factors which will help set the stage in the Russian negotiating theatre.

Understanding against whom you are negotiating is a critical part of the negotiator’s brief — and this requires attention to the relationship factor. There are two concepts, which I have found to be the keys to determining who holds the cards in any particular negotiation. These are: “kto kogo” (kto kaVO), the sense of which is “who does what to whom”; and “kto za kem”, the sense of which is “who stands behind whom”. In short — who is really calling the shots? These phrases indicate that interrelationships and networks of obligations, formal, and informal are vital parts of the structure of the Russian political economy.

They also show that the results of any negotiation have to be approved by the real power — so your task as negotiator is to be sure of who that real power actually is. Sometimes, what seem to be very small negotiations can be referred to a power that is very, very high up in the Russian political and economic systems. Finding out where power lies in any given situation is a key task.

This requires an ability to understand something of the make up of Russian society. Russians immediately understand who is who in their own society. It is more than a question of pecking order (junior versus senior). To an outsider thinking of the old USSR as a socialist and classless system, finding that today’s Russia has become stratified can be quite a shock. While Russians may not immediately understand relationships in a delegation of foreigners, they will expect the foreigners to understand relationships on the Russian side. Failure by a foreign delegation to understand, to be aware of, or to properly acknowledge the presence of a key Russian decision maker is one of those mistakes which can come back to haunt you.

Bear in mind, too, that the company you keep in Russia, and the company you are seen to keep, can influence the way Russians look at you. If you associate with one group of business people, for example, you may find yourselves unable to associate with other business groups because their relations are, shall we say, frictional.

It’s easy to understand, incidentally, why business and politics share a similar “family” approach in today’s Russia. Those in the political circle need to be trusted absolutely, as do those in the business circle. The leading politician and the leading businessman (or, very exceptionally, woman) have to provide examples of successful behavior to those below them and, often, to support the pyramid of supporters who are beholden to them in one way or another, not the least financially.

I mentioned before the “Good Cop-Bad Cop” routine. I’ve seen it often enough, in all sorts of situations, to know that the simplest technique like this is often the best: it works a treat with unaware foreigners. I have a suspicion that the routine is taught to Russian children from the very beginning, at kindergarten, like ballet.