Turmoil becomes Russia's certainty Prices, political fights fray nerves, fan fears

September 09, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Right there on the platform at the Kievsky Station, amid the familiar crowds and sights and smells, Galina and Sergei Gorvat couldn't fathom what was happening to them.

This looked like the Russia they had left behind last June. That was a train they had just gotten off, and those were the same Russian kiosks in front of them, and these were the same Russian people elbowing past them.

"We were out of cigarettes and I went to buy some, and when I saw the price -- 18 rubles! -- I couldn't believe my eyes. Maybe they made a mistake," Galina said, reeling at the more than doubled price. Was it panic or bewilderment gripping her? "Maybe the sign was wrong."

It wasn't, of course. For three months, Galina and Sergei Gorvat and their two children have been living with her mother in a small village in the Khmelnitskaya Oblast in Ukraine, where the television was broken, the neighbors spoke Ukrainian and they never happened on any newspapers.

The Gorvats may have been the only people in Moscow who just got the news yesterday.

The government has been fired, the president and parliament are in a showdown, the ruble has collapsed, prices are taking wing, stores are jammed, everyone's anxious, Russia is at a turning point.

"Surprised?" said Sergei. "We were like those cosmonauts who went up in '91 from the Soviet Union and when they came back down it wasn't there anymore."

In the looking-glass world they've come back to, the president, Boris N. Yeltsin, spent the day conferring with his acting prime minister, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, who has now been rejected twice by parliament. Yeltsin has not yet submitted a new nomination for prime minister -- his third and last under the constitution -- to the Duma, or lower house of parliament, but one could come today.

He could go with Chernomyrdin again, or choose a compromise candidate, such as Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov or Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. (Both said yesterday they were not interested.) If the Duma says no again, it must be dissolved to make way for new elections -- except that it could stymie the process by launching formal impeachment proceedings against Yeltsin. That would leave Russia even more adrift without any government.

The man who devised the economic crisis plan that Chernomyrdin put forward Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Fyodorov, denied yesterday that it envisions the wholesale printing of new rubles, although it isn't clear how else the government can pay off back wages and pensions. He said it would allow real reform to proceed, with a stable currency, a balanced budget, and tax cuts. He said the fall of the ruble was speculative and not based on inflationary pressure.

But fall it did, from 18.9 to 20.8 to the dollar yesterday. Again there was no trading on the official exchange because no one wanted rubles.

Watchword: buy now

In Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea, food stocks were so low that the governor declared an "emergency situation." Alexander Lebed, governor of Krasnoyarsk and a national figure, ordered price controls there even though he doesn't have the authority to do so.

"By regulating prices, I certainly place myself on the brink of jTC violating the law," Lebed told reporters. "But I consider these measures quite warranted. I am determined to prevent starvation in the region."

Igor Shabdurasulov, deputy head of the acting government's administration, said that although people are understandably hoarding, there are plenty of foodstuffs available in Russia.

"They have not disappeared, they have not been thrown away, or buried, or cached on some uninhabited island," he said.

"As for the government reserves, if need be, they will be used, and that is why any talk about hunger and cold -- and it seems that certain political leaders would like very much to see them in reality in order to be able to call for another revolution and to bring the people out into the streets -- that will not happen, there is no reason for that, nor are there any grounds for concern about these matters, I mean hunger and cold."

The Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, Alexy II, prayed for the salvation of Russia before an icon of Our Lady of Vladimir in the Tretyakov Art Gallery.

"The most dreadful thing that may happen now is the possibility of civil war and bloodshed," he said.

Supplies to sell

Train stations were bustling even more than usual yesterday. Valentina Afansyeva was coming in to the Savyolovsky Station from a village called Yakhroma. She brought potatoes, squash and goat's milk to give her daughter, a student who recently switched from musical training to what was supposed to be the more secure world of bank bookkeeping.

Raya Zaitseva was headed home to Alexandrov from the Leningradsky Station with two big bundles full of towels, underwear, socks and nightgowns, for sale at a local market. The wholesale market in Moscow was even more frenzied than usual yesterday, she said, with no sign that supplies are giving out.

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