Political Wheeling Drives Ruble Crisis

High-level jockeying hinders hopes of fixing Russia's diving market and plunging currency.

Shaken by last week's 13 percent plunge in the Russian stock market and fears of a ruble devaluation, Russia's economy once again seems to be spinning out of control. But is it?

As the world holds its breath, Moscow is awash in questions that nobody is able to answer. Will the ruble fall? Will the economy disintegrate? How bad can things get?

Western observers delight in doomsday scenarios. "It could get much worse than Indonesia," says one Moscow-based Western economic analyst. "Foreign capital is fleeing, the government cannot sustain the ruble, no one is buying ruble debt, everyone could default, there will be no money, and no one will get paid."

But the real questions are ones that few people are willing to tackle: Is there a genuine crisis? Is the crisis being driven by objective economic factors or by the wheeling and dealing of Russia's Byzantine political world?

Certainly the atmosphere in the capital is tense. President Boris Yeltsin interrupted his summer vacation to return to Moscow on Saturday, just one day after telling reporters in no uncertain terms that he would not consider such a move. And last week the United States sent David Lipton, the undersecretary for international affairs, to Moscow to look at the situation firsthand.

Over the weekend an uneasy calm descended on the population. Television news downplayed the crisis, showing soothing interviews with Central Bank officials who assured everyone that deposits were safe.

According to some analysts, however, the current crisis may be a function more of political maneuvering than of economics.

"Politics is certainly dominating the economic situation," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of Moscow's Panorama think tank.

If the Kremlin were to forget politics and act according to rational economic criteria, most analysts agree that a ruble devaluation is necessary.

The Asian crisis, the slump in world oil prices, and the spiraling growth of Russia's internal ruble debt has put an almost unbearable pressure on the national currency. Propping up the ruble is costing the Central Bank hundreds of millions of dollars a week, and even the $22.6 billion in international financing that Russia secured last month will not last long unless something is done.

Devaluing the ruble would give the government some much needed breathing space, as international financier George Soros indicated last week in a letter to the Financial Times newspaper in Britain.

In Russia's looking-glass world, however, logical reasoning does not always lead to the obvious conclusion.

"On a purely economic basis it would be difficult to avoid devaluation," says Vladimir Milovidov, assets manager at Atlas Capital, a Russian investment firm based in Moscow. "But the stable ruble is all Yeltsin has to show for seven years of economic reform. There are no other achievements. If the ruble were to fall now, the government would lose all credibility."

For this reason, adds Mr. Milovidov, the ruble is "doomed to stability," even though keeping it artificially high is likely to lead to economic catastrophe.

At the same time, Russia's political actors were busy muddying the waters. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a newspaper owned and openly used as a mouthpiece by financial tycoon Boris Berezovski, floated wild rumors last week that the Central Bank was behind the latest crisis, with the goal of toppling the current government.

As unlikely as that may seem, political analysts are not so quick to dismiss the possibility that there are forces at work behind the scenes.

"It is not out of the question that some of our Russian oligarchs are using the economic crisis to pin Yeltsin to the wall," says analyst Pribylovsky. "The presidential elections are less than two years away, there is no clear successor to Yeltsin, and the oligarchs want some clarity in the situation."

To top it all off, the Communist-dominated legislature is being difficult about complying with the president's wishes to hold a special session on Aug. 19 and 20 to consider the government's economic stabilization package.

Russians, however, are less pessimistic than Western observers.

Much of the population is already outside of the banking system. While studies have shown that Russians convert approximately 24 percent of their funds to dollars, much of that is kept at home. "The population has some $5 billion under their mattresses," says Pribylovsky.

And what are the prospects for the future?

"Half crisis, half stability," says Milovidov. "The shadow economy will grow, the criminal element will become more active. But officially, there will be an absence of development, capital will leave the country. In short, stagnation."

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