IN Washington Boris Yeltsin is giving speeches declaring his undying commitment to economic reform. But what do all those words mean on the streets of Moscow?
On the most popular shopping street in Moscow there was ample evidence that Yeltsin's reforms are more than just words. In its glory days Tverskaya Street was the Fifth Avenue of Moscow, but in recent years its shelves have been as bare as those throughout the capital.
The reforms that began this year, lifting restrictions on private trade, beginning privatization, and liberalizing prices have brought massive inflation but also the palpable beginnings of a consumer market.
At one end of Tverskaya Street, on the corner of Mayakovsky Square in sight of the imposing statue of the Bolshevik poet after whom it is named, stands a dimly lit state-owned kolbasa, or sausage, store. Russians can speak in almost loving terms about kolbasa, the staple of their table along with bread, recalling the days when one had an array of sausages to choose from.
A long line of people winds its way along the large glass display cases and around again where goods for sale are laid out. The store now offers five different kinds of sausage, from the most expensive "Special Sausage" at 374 rubles a kilogram to the fatty "Lubitilskaya" variety at 138 rubles, plus a "Delicious Ham." Soaring prices
The price is astronomical compared to the days of state-controlled prices when kolbasa cost a mere 2 rubles, 50 kopeks, if you could find it. But then average salaries have also risen, though not as much, from 300 rubles a month to about 2,000 rubles in Moscow. (The current market exchange rate is about 100 rubles to the dollar).
Across the street, down from the Tchaikovsky concert hall, a "commercial shop," as new de-facto private stores are called, is crowded with shoppers. "Mercury" reads the fancy neon sign at the entry to the store, a converted building lobby now lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrored panels. It is filled with the kind of foreign consumer goods that have flooded Moscow since the ruble became convertibile defacto, allowing traders to change their profits into dollars to finance trips to Europe and Turkey.
The crowd leans over cases of costume jewelry and peers at a wall of goods, everything from chocolate bars to cassette tape players. For 1950 rubles a Philips hair dryer - "made in Singapore" a hand-lettered sign explains - is yours for the taking. Plunk down a mere 750 rubles for a telephone or 4,300 rubles for a small boombox. A case of shoes - always a deficit item in the old days - offers ladies dress shoes from 1,700 to 3,900 rubles. In another case, children's underwear and socks, something people would line up for days for, is easily purchased at anywhere from 75 to 195 rubles. Women's clothes - blouses from 1,400 to 3,500 rubles or a skirt for 700 rubles - hang on the wall. Rock Muzac rings in shoppers' ears. No bread lines
On the way down the street to bread store No. 17. The decor is familiar - dirty tiles, long wooden shelves and speckled glass cases. But the items are attractive and available without a wait in line. Sweet rolls are piled up, 5 to 6 rubles a piece. The dark bread that has filled Russian stomachs for centuries costs 11 rubles, a huge jump from the pre-liberalization price of 60 kopecks. At the end of the store, items are for sale that used to provoke near riots - sugar for 69 rubles a kilogram and fine flour for 17.55 a kilo.
Along the sidewalk are the vendors, a fixture of Moscow streets since early February after Yeltsin issued a decree ending the Communist-era ban on individual trade, earlier classified as criminal "speculation." In one block flowers, books, liquor, Pepsi-Cola, cigarettes, bolts of cloth, Italian pasta, canned meat, fresh strawberries and cherries and bananas were available. That last used to be so prized they were given as a house present - now bought for 210 rubles a kilo. New entrepreneurs
Sasha sells leather jackets bought on "business tourism" trips to Turkey, one of the few countries that allows in Russians and other former Soviet citizens without a prearranged visa.
"I make about 10,000 rubles a week in profit," the lean young man with a blond crewcut says with a shrug. His past professions included gold mining and construction work in far-flung parts of the former Soviet empire. "The money is better," he says about his new life as a `biznezman,' but "morally it is worse," he says, because he is not producing anything.
Stores selling foreign goods in Moscow for dollars and other "hard currencies" are multiplying. But the ultimate "dollar" store opened several weeks ago on Tverskaya Street - the first General Motors car dealership in the former Soviet Union.
In what used to be the site of the "Druzhba" (Friendship) bookstore specializing in books from Eastern Europe, Valeri stands by four shiny Chevys and Pontiacs looking to earn his sales commission. A 1992 Chevrolet Caprice has a sticker price of $23,562, but any GM car can be ordered from his catalogues, with delivery in 3-4 months. "Trinity Motors," as the joint Russian-US-British venture is called, even offers parts and service.
And business is booming. More than a 100 cars have been sold, mostly to Russians, from individuals to state enterprises, "and maybe gangsters," Valeri says with a smile. Some customers bring in bags of cash to pay. Would such a business have been possible before?
"A year ago the tanks were moving on these streets," Valeri says recalling he attempted coup of August, 1991. "I couldn't even have thought about this."