In Russia, honor the American dollar

Money: Rubles may be the legal tender, but greenbacks are the currency of choice in the country.

August 11, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - Though their faith in most things has been sorely tested for the past tumultuous decade, most Russians still believe in one thing: the United States dollar.

Despite the bungee-jumping American stock market, many well-off Russians continue to keep their life savings in $100 bills that they squirrel away in teapots and cubbyholes.

Multicolored rubles - which feature images of Peter the Great, monuments and hydroelectric plants - are the sole legal tender in most transactions here. But greenbacks bearing the likeness of Franklin, Grant and Jackson are the currency of choice for the gray-market purchase of big-ticket items like used cars, apartments and vacation houses called dachas.

Even a surging Russian economy and competition from the upstart euro have been unable to woo Russians away.

"The premier Russian currency is the dollar," says Sergei V. Minayev, who writes about economics for the weekly newsmagazine Vlast.

Most Russians still don't trust the ruble, because they've seen it crumble to dust too often in the past. And the euro? Minayev declares that a passing fad. Currencies come and currencies go. The dollar is forever.

"Our latest estimates show that between $75 billion and $85 billion are, so to speak, being stuffed under mattresses," Igor Kostikov, chairman of the Russian Federal Commission for Securities Markets, told Western reporters last week. That would be more than 15 percent of the $500 billion in circulation worldwide. By some estimates, more dollars are held in Russia than in any other nation in the world except the United States.

After the impressive, hologram-embossed euros started appearing in January, this country's ubiquitous currency exchanges began peddling them. The upstart European notes recently rose sharply against the dollar in international markets, and in late July exchanges reported a flurry of people buying euros. Some thought that the long-awaited stampede away from the dollar had finally begun.

It hadn't. Currency traders say the people buying euros were heading for vacations in Western Europe.

Still, just as Soviet leaders once said of capitalism, some Russian experts predict that the dollar is doomed.

Andrei Cherepanov, chairman of the board of the Moscow International Currency Association, said in Komsomolskaya Pravda recently that the greenback is "unstable" because of America's lack of gold and currency reserves.

"This country lives at the expense of the rest of the world, pumping from it material wealth and giving freshly printed banknotes for it," he said. He advised Russians to buy rubles, warning that people "will be able to use dollars as wallpaper" in the near future.

But Yevgeny Gavrilenkov, an economist with Troika Dialogue brokerage house in Moscow, says the ruble is nowhere near strong enough to tempt Russians away from keeping dollars. Although interest rates are high in Russian banks, inflation last year ran at 18 percent. "It doesn't make sense keeping money in rubles in banks," he says. "You are losing money."

Gavrilenkov says that Russians may someday embrace their battered ruble, but only if they're convinced it won't melt down again.

"We need one or two years of some stability," he says. "If everything goes in the right direction, once the government's reforms really start working, in a few years, why not?"

For now, currency traders in Moscow say, the dollar rules. "When the value of euros went up, there was a splash of interest," says Aleksei Korbut, 40, a clerk in an exchange office next to Moscow's Tsvetnoi Boulevard subway station. But that interest quickly slackened.

Korbut's is one of hundreds of exchanges scattered in kiosks and closet-sized booths around Moscow. He buzzes his customers, one at a time, into a cramped, dimly-lit room after scrutinizing them by video camera. All business is transacted through thick green bulletproof glass and a sliding metal tray. It's hard to say what Korbut looks like because he keeps the metal shade behind his window drawn halfway down, so no one can see his face.

Personally, Korbut explains, turning his palms toward the ceiling, he prefers the proven stability of U.S. currency to the newer euro. "So far, I will stick to dollars," he says. "Because there is no marked difference in the value, and the period we have had euros is still too short to make judgments."

After buying dollars became legal here about 12 years ago, Russians snapped them up. Hard currency was forbidden fruit in Soviet times, and the dollars turned out to be a shelter against the hyperinflation of the early 1990s.

Dollar notes lost some of their popularity in 1996 and 1997, when commercial bank interest rates shot up. But the ruble tanked again in the midst of 1998's economic debacle - when many bank accounts were frozen, or simply disappeared.

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