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Doing Business : In Lithuania, Making Dough Can Be Tough : Former Chicagoan finds Soviet attitudes survive in irresponsible workers. But she has faith things will change.


VILNIUS, Lithuania — The pizzas at Ritos Virtuve, or Rita's Kitchen, smell like pure Chicago--the garlic, dough and baking cheese emitting a heavenly deep-dish fragrance unrivaled, and previously unknown, across the Baltic states.

But what goes into them, from the labor to the ingredients, could still be considered Soviet. And that is the problem.

Pizza is providing a new education in the Soviet legacy for Rita Dapkus, a Lithuanian activist from Chicago who served as Parliament spokeswoman here and has now started her own deliveries-only pizza parlor.

Since she opened Ritos Virtuve three months ago, she has fired seven people. The staff has swelled from eight to 18 as her clientele has grown, but she still has to struggle constantly with the Soviet mentality that infected two generations of once-diligent Lithuanians.

"The Soviet influence shows even on the young people," she said, "and the only way to get it out of them is money."

So Dapkus, 31, pays better-than-average salaries--about $40 a month. And when drivers disappear for two hours on one delivery, or other employees slack off before her 4 a.m. closing time, she fires them.

"They somehow didn't think they'd get fired," she said. "And now the others coming in, they see that."

Dapkus' efforts to train 51 years of collective irresponsibility out of her staffers coincide with attempts now under way in all three former Baltic republics at sweeping economic de-Sovietization.

In the 18 months since Moscow recognized Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as independent countries, they have made striking progress toward transforming themselves back into the westward-facing countries they once were.

Vilnius airport, which formerly offered few flights except to Warsaw or points east, now sends passengers directly on to Zurich, London, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Copenhagen, among other destinations. The most frequent carrier is Lithuanian Airlines, which broke off from the Soviet Aeroflot a year ago.

Lithuanians also gained true telephone independence recently. Previously they had to route all international calls through Moscow, meaning that to phone overseas could require a wait of a day or two. Now Vilnius residents have been integrated by satellite into international telephone exchanges: They can call directly abroad, and the three Baltic countries have been allotted country codes for direct dialing from overseas.

But despite this obvious progress, the signs of Soviet attitudes affecting business practices remain, even in the three most prosperous and advanced of the former republics.

Lithuanian Airlines, used to the old monopolist practices of Aeroflot, charges $300 for a Moscow-Vilnius round trip, barely filling a quarter of its seats, when it could charge less and earn more by attracting more passengers.

Both Latvia and Lithuania lived too long under Soviet paranoia to allow foreigners easy access to their land and markets, even though Western investment is what they need most to jump-start their economies. And Western companies have responded with the same caution they apply in Russia.

Janis Carlsberg, chief of the Latvian government's investment department, complained that foreign input so far is "miserable--only what they pay for the registration of joint ventures. There have been 20 of those registered," he said, "but few operate. It's all just talk."

Caught in the old Communist habit of redistributing wealth, Lithuania also imposes high taxes on private businesses.

"Ninety-nine percent of all private business owners, if they were in America, would be sitting in jail for tax evasion, myself included," Dapkus said. "The tax system makes it impossible not to be a criminal."

To run her pizza parlor, she is supposed to pay an 18% sales tax, 27% profits tax and 30% of each employee's salary as social security. The high taxes are making it more and more difficult to keep prices low enough to introduce the masses of Lithuanians to the joys of good pizza, Dapkus said.

She has almost no competition. The nearest equivalent appears to be some cafes' offerings of a hunk of gluey dough sprinkled with cheese, slapped into a microwave and squirted with ketchup afterward.

But even at their current price of less than $2 for a hefty pie smothered in onions, peppers and mushrooms, her pizzas are already a luxury in a country where monthly salaries average about $30.

Dapkus also has to deal with old habits from the days when virtually everything in the workplace was government property and therefore considered ripe for theft or negligence. When she allowed her workers to use the kitchen's supplies to prepare lunches for themselves, she found they were consuming a quantity of food worth almost half what she paid in salaries, and she made them cut back.

"I had to explain that the less profit I have at the end of the month, the less I can give you in cash," Dapkus said.

The attitude toward equipment and cutlery was: If something breaks, who cares?

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