IMF braced for further Russian blow

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The Independent Online
THE INTERNATIONAL financial community is bracing itself for another fierce blow from Russia - the likelihood that it will default or, at best, restructure some $200bn of foreign currency debt.

Analysts predict that Moscow will be unable to find $19.2bn due next year, threatening to drive Russia's financial crisis to new depths and deepen its isolation.

"The position at present looks like another default or restructuring," said a western diplomatic source. "They have got themselves into a very, very deep hole."

Although Russia has promised to honour its foreign debts, its credibility has been badly undermined by its decision in August to freeze $40bn of rouble-denominated domestic debt, gridlocking the banking system and leaving foreign investors high and dry.

In more normal circumstances, Russia could borrow enough funds to roll over $19bn of interest and principle payments due next year; it is not an exceptionally large sum for a large country.

But a severe loss of international confidence, compounded by its steepening economic decline, has diminished its chances of raising the money.

Neither the International Monetary Fund nor the World Bank is likely to look favourably on the idea of bailing out Moscow again, particularly given the return to power of Gorbachev-era free-market sceptics.

Michel Camdessus, the International Monetary Fund's managing director, said yesterday that the fund - which has a team in Moscow discussing the future of its now discredited $23bn rescue package - was ready to support Russia as long as Moscow presented a "credible reform plan".

But there are few signs that Russia can satisfy that criteria. "The choice is between defaulting and rescheduling," Thierry Mallerat, an economist with Russia's Alfa Capital told the Moscow Times newspaper. "Russia is totally broke and I don't see how the situation could improve."

Another default would repeat an unfortunate pattern that stretches back to the 1917 revolution, when the Bolsheviks refused to honour billions of dollars-worth of tsarist-era bonds.

Western commercial banks have yet to forgive Russia for restructuring $26bn of Soviet-era debt to the London Club.

The archpriest of Russia's market economics, Anatoly Chubais, believes that Russia had no choice but to turn to the IMF to meet its foreign debts, even this year.

An agreement with the IMF would be difficult. But without one, Moscow would resort to using currency reserves, spawning an even more intense attack on the rouble.