Western markets braced for Russian debt terms

HOPES OF an early resolution to the Russian financial crisis were fading last night despite reassurances from Russia's new Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, that a $40bn debt restructuring package would not discriminate against foreigners.

Meetings between Russian officials and Western bankers hit by last week's surprise moratorium on payments were still going on late last night, despite assurances that the new government would honour the commitment of its predecessor to agree a new package by yesterday.

Sources said that the terms hammered out by officials had been submitted to the new Prime Minister. "It is on Mr Chernomyrdin's" desk said one source last night.

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

Commentators said yesterday that the Russians had to establish some degree of seniority of the debt 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.