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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Embassy Lines Make for Brisk Business




While many complain about long lines outside Moscow's embassies, pensioner Valentina Nikolayeva is one of the many budding enterpreneurs who likes them.


Most weekday mornings for the past two years, Nikolayeva has stood outside the German Embassy with a small cardboard sign reading "Room for Rent." With an apartment just behind the consular section, she rarely goes home alone.


Arriving by the hundreds at the most popular embassies, visa seekers provide a surefire customer pool for insurance companies, travel agencies, tour operat ors and pensioners with an extra bed or two.


"They come from the Far East, Chukotka, Krasnodar f from everywhere," said Nikolayeva, who for 80 rubles a night offers a room and the use of her kitchen to the travel-weary who don't make it to the front of the line at the German Embassy before closing time.


"The pension I receive isn't enough, it gets me a piece of bread. ? And I support them with what they need," Nikolayeva said.


The demand was once so high that, a few years ago, people would park their cars by the consular section and rent them out as sleeping space, she said.


The German Embassy is not the only magnet drawing crowds of eager salespeople. Insurance agents claim a brisk business working the lines at the embassies requiring visa applicants to have insurance, particularly at the Spanish, Italian and French embassies, said Alexander Bondarevsky of Pari insurance company.


Ever since the British Embassy moved into its new building, which has two rooms accommodating a total of about 250 applicants, the crowd of vendors outside has subsided. On a recent day, a merry bunch of nine salespeople plied newcomers with leaflets for airline tickets, insurance policies, services for London tourists and telephone cards.


"It's not very good business. There are probably fewer people inside than there are firms [outside]," joked Valentina, a woman handing out bright yellow ads offering $237 flights to London for young people, students and teachers.


The Czech Embassy, on the contrary, is a promising new stomping ground for vendors. Since the introduction of a visa requirement for Russian nationals that took effect May 29, the consular section has received nearly 4,000 applications. In response to the new demand, insurance companies quickly sent in their troops, and embassy officials don't seem to mind.


"It's business. It helps people, I hope. ? They [the salespeople] have nothing to do with us," said Gan Tomasek, a spokesman for the Czech Embassy.


No one offering goods and services outside the embassies complained of any serious conflicts with consular security officials.


"At first they didn't want to allow us [to work outside]. Then they decided to let us stand here," said a woman offering tour information outside the British Embassy who gave her name as Lina.


While embassy guards patrol the narrow strip of pavement outside the gate, they cannot order people off the public property beyond, which is controlled by local police, said Jack Thompson, consul and head of the visa section at the British Embassy.


"We like to have an orderly queue, which ? is extremely difficult here," he said, with as many as 300 people applying for visas every day.


"Like all embassies, we have our group of women who stand out there with brochures offering cheap holidays and insurance. ? We've never had problems. If they were to clog up the entrance, we'd be down there asking them to move."


Thomas Pfanne, spokesman for the German Embassy, had no real complaints about the business booming outside his consulate's doors either.


"On some occasions, for security reasons, the consulate has asked the Russian authorities for help," he said.


But the German Embassy has accepted the salespeople, even recommending a handful of the insurance companies on its web page based on their reputation for paying out claims, Pfanne said.


"The majority of people buy insurance policies here in front of the embassy because it's more convenient. ? A person can come out [of the building] and immediately sign, so there's no need to go downtown," said a representative from Rosno insurance company, offering policies outside the German Embassy.


On that day, she and two other saleswomen had been there since 7 a.m. and would leave promptly at closing time, along with the 40 or so other insurance agents. All of them agreed that the German Embassy offers the best business in town. In May alone, 16,649 visas were granted, the embassy said.


At the German Embassy, salespeople double as guides for those who don't understand which line to stand in or what to do with their talonchik, or coupon f part of a color- and number-coded system introduced last summer to simplify the application process and shorten the wait to one or two days.


Another popular site f thanks to the lack of indoor waiting space f is the U.S. Embassy. On a cool, cloudy afternoon last week, commerce amounted to airline ticket flyers and ads for language lessons. About 10 people, mostly middle-aged women, were busy promoting their rates.


"There are a lot of clients here and a lot of competition," said Sergei Karasov, 18, a university student. He was distributing ads for a tourist agency.


For 2 1/2 hours of work every weekday, he earns 1,000 rubles a month, which he said helps to keep him in school and out of the army.


Galya, a woman who is paid on commission and splits her time between the U.S. and British embassies advertising flights, said she gets more money from customers destined for Britain, since they have a better chance of receiving their visas.


"Will I be here next week? I don't know," said Yelena Trofimova, a fourth-year chemistry student from Tambov who began advertising airline tickets outside the British Embassy earlier this spring. Earning 20 rubles per hour and working from 7:30 a.m. along a busy road, she doesn't care too much for the job.


Ilya Stanislavsky, a 16-year-old violin student who works from 9 a.m. to noon, has been at it since last winter. He receives 10 percent of every $250-a-day London tourist package he sells, and his mother fills in when he can't work.


By 1:30 p.m. that Friday, Nikolayeva's cardboard sign at the German Embassy worked and a family of four took up her offer, after they assured their hostess that their baby wore disposable diapers rather than the cloth sort that must be washed. They had not filled out their applications properly and weren't able to correct them before closing time.


"Almost everyone who has stayed with me has received their visas, whether they're going to work, to get married or to visit," Nikolayeva said, before leaving with her new tenants.