Police guard food as rouble collapses

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POLICE GUARDS have been posted at food processing plants around Moscow amid growing signs that the impact of the free-falling rouble is beginning to bite at street-level.

Food hoarding in the capital, which is far richer than most of the rest of Russia, spread yesterday after the rouble plummeted to a new official rate of 13.4 to the US dollar.

As the currency collapse gathered sudden pace, so too did President Boris Yeltsin's efforts to end his deadlock with parliament, which has left the country without a functioning government for nearly two weeks. He tried to breathe life into a moribund offer to opposition party leaders to share some of his powers in return for their support for his unpopular acting premier, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

A senior government official predicted "serious" food shortages yesterday because foreign firms have stopped shipments, fearing that they will will no longer be paid.

Last night the State Statistics Committee announced that Russia's grain output has dropped by almost half against this time last year and, according to the Moscow Times, erratic weather is threatening to wipe out potato crops.

In the capital, shelves once crammed with imported goods have suddenly begun to look thin, amid fears of a return to food shortages and endless queues of the last years of the Soviet Union. As the rouble tumbled, there was a fresh rush to the banks by Muscovites whose savings were dwindling by the hour.

The deepening crisis prompted Mr Yeltsin to dispatch his chief-of-staff, Valentin Yumashev, to parliament with what the Kremlin described as a "slightly amended" version of an earlier, rejected, power-sharing agreement.

Although vague and lacking concrete guarantees, it envisages giving the State Duma the right to reject some cabinet ministerial appointments. Now, the constitution allows Mr Yeltsin to hire and fire his cabinet at his premier's recommendation. In return, parl- iament's lower house would have to confirm Mr Chernomyrdin today. However, the odds last night favoured a second defeat for the acting prime minister, prolonging Russia's agonising limbo for up to another week.

Genady Zyuganov's Communists, who have 138 of the 450-seat chamber, and the 45-strong liberal Yabloko Party remain opposed to him. However, 51 seats of the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party have now come out in support of the nomination.

The authorities are preparing against scattered unrest as millions of Russians have seen the value of months of unpaid wages shrivel by 50 per cent in three weeks. Igor Sergeyev, the Defence Minister, said the armed forces, which are in deep disarray, were "not in a festive mood". "God forbid we have a repetition of 1993," he added, referring to the year when Mr Yeltsin bombarded parliament with tanks.

If Mr Chernomyrdin loses today's vote, Mr Yeltsin and the Duma will face a tough gamble. Another rejection in a final vote next week would lead to the dissolution of parliament, allowing Mr Yeltsin to finally install his government.

But the President knows the next Duma, which must be elected within four months of dissolution, is certain to be far more hostile, and could throw out his government with two successive no-confidence votes. If Mr Chernomyrdin loses a second time, the Kremlin may choose to offer up another candidate for prime minister, possibly the former Communist Yegor Stroyev.

The prospect of being disbanded is far from popular in the Duma, particularly among members who fear losing their jobs in a sweeping Communist victory.

And there is a further complication: under Russian electoral law, political parties must register for elections one year before they are held. None of them did so before this May - which could, theoretically, ban parties from Duma elections until the early summer.

In another effort to curry up confidence in himself, Mr Chernomyrdin is promising to make a "sensational" speech today outlining solutions to the economic mess. There is a suggestion that he is willing to include some Communists in his cabinet.

They may feel that any association with him, or Mr Yeltsin, taints them in the eyes of the population. A recent survey found two-thirds of Russians want President Yeltsin out of office before the end of his term in 2000.

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