Anxious Russians fill cupboards, abandon shops Stores left overstocked as uncertain economy freezes up, ruble bounces

September 11, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SERPUKHOV, Russia -- The prolonged frenzy of buying and money-changing ground to such a complete and abrupt halt yesterday it was as if someone had kicked a plug out of a wall socket.

On Wednesday markets and stores were jammed, bakeries were laying in extra shipments of bread, and people here -- like people across Russia -- were furiously snapping up what they could, getting rid of rubles and taking advantage of prices that lagged behind inflation.

Yesterday, neatly uniformed clerks stood behind counters waiting for customers who never came. Wind blew wrappers through the farmers' market where the day before a shopper could barely move for the crowds. A bread factory threw out 30 tons of bread baked on orders received Wednesday, but canceled yesterday.

The highway that runs through town -- a highway that links Moscow to the Russian heartland -- offered drivers who ventured out unsurpassed serenity, thanks to the near-total absence of trucks.

In Moscow, 60 miles from here, stores were largely undisturbed by shoppers. Traffic moved freely on streets where that just doesn't happen on a weekday. Evidence suggests the weird binge Russians went on when their economy began collapsing last month has come to an equally weird halt.

OC "The system has frozen up," said Nina Zezedko, a vendor at the

market in Serpukhov.

'Situation inspires tears'

"People don't want to buy and people don't want to sell," said Sergei Yefremov, sitting alone in his real estate office. "The situation inspires tears."

All sorts of factors seem to be at work.

The ruble, for one, continued its upward march against the dollar. After dropping from 6 to 20 to the dollar, it has now rebounded to 12.87. The government says that's about right, that the earlier lows were driven by panic. But it means that prices that were adjusted upward for the ruble's fall are now, in real terms, yet another 33 percent higher.

On top of that, rubles were almost impossible to find most of yesterday. That helped drive the exchange rate down even faster. And it meant people who had converted their money to dollars were unable to shop. Many companies have bought up rubles in the last few days as taxes came due, but people suspect the banks and exchange offices have been intentionally holding onto their rubles while the value of the currency rises.

Those suspicions were fueled late yesterday when exchange offices in Moscow suddenly reversed themselves and started selling rubles, at rates ranging from 10 to 15, while refusing to sell dollars.

Whatever's going on, the black market in Serpukhov achieved a historic first yesterday, when it offered fewer rubles per dollar -- 7 -- than the official exchange rate.

Another reason for the sudden freeze-up appeared to be that people have bought as much as they could.

"The grandmothers who bought 10 loaves are quiet now," said Vladimir Fokin, general director of the Serpukhovkhleb bread factory. "They've made their dried bread, and can't make more."

On Saturday, his plant, one of three in this city of 140,000, produced 49.7 metric tons of bread. By Monday it was up to 57.2. On Tuesday, it was 82.9. "That's when people started to get worried," Fokin said.

On Wednesday it was 97.9 tons. But yesterday, he said, "we'll be lucky to sell 30."

"All the shops are stuffed with bread," he said. "We're not even putting it on the shelves, we have to put it on the floor. It's not pleasant looking at these heaps of bread. It was panic -- panic by the store managers. Now we have to slash our production for at least the next 72 hours."

But the drop in demand has masked an even sharper drop in supply -- not of bread but of other food items, particularly imports, which account for half the food sold in Serpukhov and as much as 80 percent in Moscow. Market vendors said that because of the banking collapse, which has frozen payments, almost nothing is coming from the warehouses in Moscow.

Ivan Starikov, deputy economics minister, reported yesterday that Russian imports had dropped an astonishing 40 percent or 45 percent in August

"The situation we have now is identical to that we had before reforms began in Russia -- when shops were empty but our refrigerators and storerooms were full," he said.

Price controls imposed

Political leaders across Russia leaped into the fray yesterday, announcing forms of price limitations just as the price rises appear to have come to a natural halt.

Fokin said the wholesale price of sugar dropped from 12 rubles per kilogram (2.2 pounds) to 10.4 yesterday. Butter in the market here went from 72 rubles to 53. American cigarettes came down from 25 to 18.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg yesterday, price controls were imposed based on a percentage markup. Local authorities in Serpukhov have been sending teams to check prices; when they think there's gouging, they threaten license revocations and other disincentives.

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