Russians queue frantically for dollars

 

In scenes reminiscent of the bread lines of darker days, Russians queued in the streets yesterday in a frantic search for US 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 raised 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 per cent. And even at those rates, most money-changers said they were not prepared to sell dollars.

At a branch of the state savings institution Sberbank, where the rate had shot up to 7.50, the cashier said at noon she had "a few" dollars left. Within hours she had none.

Some shops, especially those selling big-ticket imported items like furniture and televisions, closed down, the owners saying they could not be sure what prices to set. Outside the Belorussky train station, cashiers at most of dozens of exchange points said: "Dollarov nyet!" ("No dollars!").

One exchange booth still operating in the area had at least 40 people lined up into the street. "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?"

By late afternoon the queues had vanished as local exchange booths settled on a selling rate of eight roubles to the dollar.

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.

The better-off will be spared the brunt of the pain, as much of their savings and earnings are in hard currency, while the less well paid typically earn roubles and already lost heavily when the Soviet rouble collapsed in 1991 at the end of the Communist era.