• ACI Russia

08/17/1998 11:51:25 FOCUS-Muscovites hunt dollars, some shops close

Обновлено: 18 авг. 2018 г.

(Updates with shops closing, new colour, comments) By Peter Graff

MOSCOW, Aug 17 (Reuters) - In scenes reminiscent of the bread lines of darker days, Russians queued in the streets on Monday in a frantic search for dollars. The government denied that its decision to lift the ceiling on the rouble exchange rate amounted to a devaluation, but on the streets of Moscow people were taking no chances. Virtually all of Moscow's hundreds of banks and exchange points immediately hiked the rate at which they sell dollars to 7.50 or even 9.50 roubles, amounting to an instant de facto devaluation of at least 15 percent. And even at those rates, most money changers said they were not prepared to sell dollars. At the state-run savings institution Sberbank, where the rate had shot up to 7.50, a cashier said that by noon she had "a few" dollars left, but would not say how many. Some shops, especially those selling big-ticket imported items like furniture and televisions, closed down, the owners saying they could not be sure where to set prices for their goods. Outside the Belorussky train station, cashiers at nearly all of dozens of exchange points said: "Dollarov nyet!" ("No dollars!") One exchange booth still operating had at least 40 people lined up into the street. Spectators stood staring. "Wait in the queue!" said a security guard. "There are some dollars left. Of course, whether there will be any when you reach the front of the queue, who can say?" Officials estimate that there are far more American dollars in Russian pockets than the total value of roubles in circulation. Many Russians keep their savings in dollars and switch back to roubles only when they need them to shop. The relative stability of the rouble, which has lost ground only slowly against the dollar in the past three years, is one of the few conspicuous economic achievements of Boris Yeltsin's presidency, as far as many ordinary Russians are concerned. But as that achievement seemed to be unravelling on Monday, Russians from different walks of life pondered the consequences. As usual, the better-off will be spared the brunt of the pain. "A devaluation doesn't really affect me. Let's say I have no great quantity of roubles," a well-groomed man in his 30s said after buying $200 worth of roubles. His savings and earnings were in hard currency and roubles strictly a daily necessity. But office worker Anatoly, older and less smartly dressed, was more anxious. He had just bought dollars at Sberbank, even at 7.50 roubles. "I get paid in roubles and my pay's a month overdue, so it will be worth even less when I get it," he said. "I blame those economists running the country." Others, used to currency turmoil in the past, seemed resigned to their fate. "I lost all my savings in 1991. I haven't any left, so how much worse can it get?" said Anna, a pensioner seated outside a metro station selling pears she grows in her garden. Four-digit inflation wiped out the Soviet rouble when communism collapsed. "The government has always swindled us. So it seems they've done it again. I suppose my pension will buy less -- but I can't earn any more," she added. She sells her pears at 11 roubles a kilo (2.2 lb), the same price -- in roubles, at least -- as last week. Tradespeople in the shops around the metro station said they expected to raise prices in the next days as imports got dearer. Igor, who imports Italian furniture, simply shut up shop. "There's a panic on the market. No one knows what the rouble's worth and all my stock comes from Italy so I don't know what to sell it at. It's a real mess," he said angrily as he climbed into his Mercedes to go home. At a store selling imported stereo equipment, price tags had already been removed from the inventory. "We're waiting to see what happens," a salesman said. Some commercial banks had already turned away depositors requesting withdrawals from dollar accounts on Friday. By Monday, people could be seen trotting from bank to bank in search of any that had dollars left in the till. "I've been running around all morning," said a man who gave his name only as Oleg. "I borrowed money and have to pay it back in dollars. I think there's another bank there on the corner...."

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