Letting foreign banks into Russia?

Unprecedented move hinted by premier may coax out money hoarded under a distrusted system.

Millions of Russians who literally keep their savings in mattresses might finally get the opportunity to deposit them in a real bank. But, as Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov tacitly admitted last weekend, it will probably have to be a foreign-managed bank.

Speaking in Moscow to the World Economic Forum, a gathering of about 200 global corporate and financial chiefs, Mr. Primakov acknowledged that Russia faces a crisis of confidence brought on in large part by the chronic failure of domestic financial institutions to extend the most elementary protections to their clients.

"The Russian banking system proved weak and artificial, able only to feed on the state budget," he says, referring to bank failures in August that decimated the savings of millions. "The toughest consequence of the crisis is a total credibility gap."

That may be stating the problem mildly. For many people, still waiting for compensation nearly four months after most private banks closed their doors and froze depositors' accounts, banker is synonymous with bandit.

"I will never again trust a Russian bank, and I will tell my grandchildren never to trust one," says Yelena Prohovets, an unemployed accountant who lost her entire savings - about $3,000 in hard currency - in a Moscow branch of Bank Rossisky Kredit, formerly Russia's seventh largest financial institution.

"This disaster has ruined my family. Our money is gone, and all they do is put us off with false promises."

Oleg Nikitsky, a pensioner, says he lost 9,000 rubles in Inkombank, once the country's third largest.

Before the crisis about 6 rubles fetched $1; by early September the rate had slipped to around 15 rubles to a dollar. Today it's more than 20, and falling fast.

"That money was for my grandchildren," says Mr. Nikitsky. "If I could get my hands on it now, I might be able to buy something worthwhile with it. By the time they give it to me, if they ever do, I know it'll be nothing."

The country's chances for economic revival may hinge on whether the government can quickly find solutions that people like Ms. Prohovets and Mr. Nikitsky might accept.

Although average Russians lost about $2 billion in the August banking crash, economists estimate the oft-deceived population holds a further $40 billion to $60 billion in hard-currency savings that remain stuffed in mattresses, hidden under floorboards, or buried in kitchen gardens.

That amount of money, if unlocked and injected into the domestic economy, might go far to nudging Russian industry and commerce into growth after almost a decade of steady decline.

"Ordinary people are hoarding staggering amounts of dollars. Thanks to the extreme distrust of the ruble and the official financial system, all that money remains frozen in economically inert forms," says Leonid Vardomsky, an economist with the Institute of Economic Studies in Moscow.

PRIMAKOV's suggestion, unprecedented from a Russian leader, is to remove the restrictions barring foreign-owned banks from providing retail services - deposits and loans - to private individuals.

"Inviting big international banks into Russia may be the only way to coax the savings of the population from their hiding places," says Yevgeny Vittenberg, an expert with Intelbridge, a Moscow-based financial consulting firm.

"If globally respected names guarantee bank deposits, it might impress our people," he says. "As things stand no one is going to trust a Russian bank, or the government for that matter, for the next three generations."

The obstinacy of average Russians is grounded in bitter experience. During World War II bond-buying was practically compulsory. Then there was the Khrushchev currency reform, used as an excuse to dramatically raise prices. In early 1991 high-denomination bank notes were withdrawn from circulation in an "anti-black market" measure. The hyperinflation of 1992 wiped out most bank savings. Then there were the private pyramid schemes and, most recently, the August banking collapse.

"This is a battle-hardened population," says Mr. Vardomsky. "You will not easily convince them to trust again. And the present government is doing a very poor job of handling the problem."

Following the August crisis, Russia's Central Bank promised to guarantee all deposits stuck in failed private banks "100 percent." That pledge has been unraveling ever since.

Prohovets, like others, had her money in a dollar-denoted account, a standard way to hedge against inflation and the unpredictable value of the ruble.

In September the government announced all accounts transferred to the state-owned savings bank, Sberbank, would be redeemed by Nov. 30 - but in rubles, at a rate of 9.3 on the dollar.

Last week Sberbank began paying back depositors from four failed private banks - Menatep, MOST Bank, Mostbusiness bank and Promstroybank. More are expected to join the list.

Alexander Torkunov, spokesman for the Central Bank, says the government will provide 5 billion rubles (about $250 million) to redeem some 300,000 defaulted accounts. That still leaves thousands of depositors out in the cold.

"There are some discussions about including other banks in the list. We are working on that," says Mr. Torkunov.

Such reassurances hold little comfort for Prohovets. "I have already lost my dollars. If they would repay me at 9.3 rubles per dollar today, I would have lost half my money. If they ever get around to compensating me, who knows what the ruble rate will be at that time?" she says. "So, am I so wrong to call this robbery?"

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