Russian PM gives green light to delayed debt deal

THE NEW Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, gave the green light last night to a plan to restructure $40bn of government short- term debt and put the country back on a firmer financial footing.

Government sources said details of the package, which is seen as a key test of Russia's financial credibility, will be unveiled today. However, it is understood that the package, which had been delayed because of President Yeltsin's decision on Sunday night to fire the government, goes a long way toward meeting the concerns of the foreign banks.

The deal affects short-term Russian treasury bills, known as GKOs and OFZs, and some margin calls on futures contracts guaranteed by the Russian foreign exchange market. The package aims to reduce the cost of servicing Russia's debt burden by swapping the high-yielding short-term debt for longer term paper.

The Russians were forced to withdraw earlier proposals last week under pressure from foreign investors who claimed that the proposals would be discriminatory.

Commentators said the Russians had to establish some degree of debt seniority so that the foreign investors involved could know where they stood.

The crisis, which deepened after the shock decision by President Yeltsin to sack the Prime Minister, Mr Sergei Kiriyenko, and his entire cabinet on Sunday night continued to weigh heavily on the Russian market.

The rouble slid further to 7.14 to the dollar from 7.0050 on Friday.

Shares, however, were up; the Moscow Times Index showed a gain of 2.29 points to 58.14.

Analysts said foreign investors hoped that the return of 60-year-old Mr Chernomyrdin, only four months after he was fired to make way for Mr Kiriyenko, would give some solidity to the government and make it easier to push through vitally-needed economic and financial reforms.

Although hostile to the measures proposed by pro-Western reforms for liberalising the economy, Mr Chernomyrdin, a former head of the giant Gazprom gas group, was one of the few politicians able to command the support of the Duma (the Russian parliament), which has dragged its feet over reform.

However, a definitive assessment of the new government's economic credentials will have to wait until the other members of the new cabinet are announced. "It is all the old control freaks," one observer complained.

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