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Russia’s Cuddly Tax Man

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Softly, softly, Russia’s newly lovable tax man is coming. Cuddly, with kind eyes, he looks at first-time taxpayers from the cover of a booklet on how to fill out the form correctly, saying cheerfully, “Don’t be afraid!”

Up to 5 million of the leaflets, filled with cartoons and reassuring explanations, are being distributed to mailboxes in mostly urban areas of Russia. The idea is to gently encourage millions of self-employed or freelance Russians to be public-spirited enough to submit an income declaration, before April, on their 1997 earnings.

Inadequate tax collection--mostly from big enterprises, whose bosses are chummy with leading government officials--has bedeviled the government’s attempts to reduce its budget deficit. It has also irritated Western organizations--such as the International Monetary Fund--that are helping Russia modernize its economy; the groups suspect that government leaders are letting cronies escape their tax bills.

Now Moscow is on a campaign--spending $500,000 for a media blitz that includes the tax leaflets--to boost its tax revenue. Finance Minister Mikhail M. Zadornov said this month that revenue for January was up 30% from the same time a year ago and that the Russian Tax Inspectorate nearly reached its monthly target of 10 billion rubles ($1.7 billion).

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“This isn’t only a tax-collection exercise. The leaflet’s also an ad to explain why people need to pay tax today. For people filling out their forms for the first time, the leaflet is an educational tool,” said Nikolai Nikolayev, spokesman at the tax inspectorate.

This year’s comic-strip tax man is far removed from the scary image that many Russians still have of revenue agents. That grim picture was etched into the minds of many who watched the televised 1994 arrest of Sergei Mavrodi, the creator of a pyramid scheme that deprived millions of Russians of their life savings. Mavrodi was hauled off for questioning by hulking agents in commando gear and black ski masks; they nabbed him after rappelling down his building and swinging through the window.

The new tone is one of sweet reason. “Until 1992, no one ever explained to us how much tax we paid or what it was for. What has changed? Why has it become so important?” the leaflet asks rhetorically.

A cartoon of a giant pair of hands shaking dozens of tiny citizens in a sieve, their money dropping out of their pockets into an enormous hat, illustrates the old Soviet tax-collecting principle. The cartoon of today’s citizen--"who is the master of his property, his labor and his income"--shows a much larger person. He’s a little sad, but he’s pouring money from his own sack into different receptacles for “what everyone needs: health care, education, public sanitation, police and the environment.”

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“No one anywhere loves the tax man, but they have to learn to accept his presence. We’re not asking for love, only for cooperation,” Nikolayev said.

But whether the carrot approach will work on Russians, who are more accustomed to being coerced into obeying the law, remains to be seen. Many people have simply ignored the leaflet and all the ads.

“Oh, yes, those leaflets,” environmentalist Natalya Kazanskaya, 50, said absent-mindedly. “I think I got one in my mailbox, but I didn’t really read it. I just threw it away.”

Even if this year’s tax collection exercise is a success, the agency will have to go through another convulsion next year. A new, streamlined tax code, delayed for months before going to parliament, is expected to be passed by summer--meaning this year’s forms will have to be changed.


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