MOSCOW -- Starting today, Russians are to get their first real exposure to that staple of Western life -- the checkbook.
ZTC This is a country that always has had a cash-on-the-barrelhead way of doing things. The finances of the average Russian are pretty straightforward. Cash in, cash out.
It's not at all unusual for someone to pay for a big purchase with thousands of rubles -- generally in bulky wads of 10-ruble notes.
But the country is rapidly running out of cash, and the printing presses can't print fast enough.
So Georgy Matyukhin, chairman of Russia's Central Bank, announced yesterday the introduction of checks to cover the difference.
Twenty million are to be issued today and 40 million more by Jan. 20, according to the Interfax news agency.
What's not clear is whether Russians will take to them.
Can a slip of paper that you sign really have any value?
An earlier attempt to provide a system of cashier's checks from ** state-run banks for large purchases ran aground when state-run stores refused to accept them.
What's also not clear is whether the stressed-to-the-limit banking system can suddenly handle 60 million paper transactions.
A visit to one bank revealed some of the confusion besetting the system -- and this was one of the more sophisticated operations, one that deals with foreign businesses.
It was one of the main offices of the Vneshekonombank, and it had been closed for two days because its private landlord had turned off the electricity.
With some of the bank's clients lobbying on its behalf, the branch finally opened at 11 a.m. yesterday.
But there was another problem: The Russian Central Bank had ordered Vneshekonombank (at one time a powerful organ of the Soviet government) to handle ruble business transactions at 55 rubles to the dollar, instead of using the old commercial rate of 1.67 rubles to the dollar.
A bank official said there were "technical" reasons making that impossible -- apparently, a "technical" lack of dollars.
So, when the bank finally did open its doors, it went ahead and used the old rate.
One bank official said it was unclear who is in charge and who is making the rules.
Companies that do business at Vneshekonombank haven't been able to pay bills with checks, but they have been able to use bank transfers when both parties have accounts at the bank. The process involves long, detailed forms and requires an employee of the firm trying to make the payment to spend about half his day standing in various lines.
The desks are piled high with these forms, counterforms and receipts -- mountains of paper all scrupulously filled out by hand.
Another bank official said the introduction of checking "is a fine idea -- not only checks but credit cards."
"But we would need electronic equipment to institute this," she said: Computers at the bank, links to other banks, a
check-clearing system, phone lines to stores and restaurants.
Most Russian banks don't handle payments at all. They simply provide modest interest on savings accounts.
The Central Bank has proclaimed checking but so far hasn't explained to the other banks how it will work.