Millionaire unable to buy a car after collapse of rouble

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The Independent Online
"SORRY, I can only take dollars from now on," Valya told Grisha when she came to collect the September rent. It was a heavy blow to him, because the devalued rouble buys far fewer dollars at exchange points, if indeed they are available.

Grisha, a professional musician, is in a particularly weak position as the crisis in Russia deepens. On an irregular income from the state concert agency, he must also pay rent for his accommodation because he has recently been divorced. He scrapes this together by giving private lessons for dollars but pupils often fail to show up and every month it is touch and go.

Old friendship counts for something in Russia but Grisha cannot expect charity from his landlady, who has her own back to the wall. An engineer, Valya lives beyond her paltry official means because she is fortunate to have inherited from her mother a second flat that she can rent out.

Until now, she has been happy to take the equivalent of $350 (pounds 210) a month in any mixture of bank notes because the rouble has been stable and convertible inside the country. But now the two rooms out by the airport in the suburb of Khimki cost hard currency.

At the moment, Valya is only breaking the law by not paying tax on her extra income. And in a way, who can blame her? Even $350, three times the average salary, is not very much when she has two children to feed, clothe and educate at current Moscow prices.

If Russia returns to Soviet-era currency controls, however, Valya will be committing a crime simply by holding dollars in her hand. The old-new- acting Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, promises that this is not going to happen but already a black market is flourishing.

Low inflation and a stable rouble had been among the few tangible achievements of President Boris Yeltsin's administration. For months, the rouble traded reliably at around 6,000 to $1, thanks to support from the Central Bank.

But on 17 August, the short-lived government of Sergei Kiriyenko widened the corridor in which the rouble could float before the bank intervened to a range of 6,000 to 9,000.

Exchange traders immediately made the ceiling of 9,000 their starting point. Political chaos after President Yeltsinbrought Mr Chernomyrdin back out of retirement caused the rouble to plunge further. Yesterday, the Central Bank had breached its own corridor and was offering an official rate of nearly 11,000 to the dollar. But the rate on the street varied from 13,000-1 in Moscow to 22,000-1 in far-flung parts of the provinces.

Russians want the dollar because it is an inflation-proof currency in which to keep their money until they are ready to go out shopping.

But they cannot spend dollars in the stores, as new democratic laws say all goods must be available to foreigners and locals alike, priced in roubles. It was not always so.

The Communists operated a system of hard-currency supermarkets for foreigners, well-stocked rouble stores for privileged party members and other rouble shops with a miserable selection of tins and rotten vegetables for the majority of the population. It was discrimination comparable to apartheid in South Africa.

On one occasion, the late Soviet human rights campaigner, Andrei Sakharov, made a point by getting himself arrested by trying to enter a hard-currency store with only roubles in his pocket. Most Russians avoided overt protests but took risks nevertheless by turning to the black market for such things as jeans.

Today, although imports are starting to dry up, suggesting there could be shortages in the near future, there are still enough goods in Moscow. But prices are rocketing, forcing Russians to tighten their belts or work even harder to survive.

While I was writing this article, the phone rang. "Hi, it's Galina, I know we haven't seen each other for two years but do you by any chance need a masseuse?"

She was hoping that I, as a "rich" foreigner, could help boost her earnings. "Roubles will be fine, I'm not insisting on dollars," she said.

Yet strangely Slava, the mechanic who fixes my car, was charging old prices and could not be persuaded to take more. Clients were falling away and he was afraid he would go out of business if he demanded extra.

He had a bittersweet story to tell. All this year, he worked round the clock to earn 30 million roubles (previously $6,000), which he planned to spend on his dream, a car of his own. Just before the devaluation, his wife persuaded him not to rush into the purchase.

Now a car is way beyond his reach. To the amusement of the whole garage, he has bought a double bed instead.

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