Out of Russia: Capitalists in Moscow fleece the foreigner market

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MOSCOW - A thin slip of paper was pushed through my letterbox the other day. Everyone in the building - scattered over 24 floors and three sprawling wings overlooking the Moscow river - got a copy too. Someone had clearly gone to a lot of trouble.

But who exactly - and why - I can only guess. The note, only four lines long, bore no name, address or telephone number. It concluded with a stern warning in capital letters: 'WATCH OUT] DON'T LET THEM CHEAT YOU]'

Harmless enough. Moscow is awash with crooks these days and it never hurts to take precautions. Then I read it more closely: the crook in question, it seems, is me, along with a handful of other foreigners now living in my building, a gargantuan Stalinist pile on Kotelnicheskaya embankment.

The anonymous note writer has no quarrel with us being there. Quite the opposite: the more the better. What rankles, though, is that we are not paying enough for the privilege. Tenants, the note advises, should cough up according to 'international standards' - Moscow's new buzz word for extortion.

As the Russian rouble withers into worthlessness, losing nearly 70 per cent of its value over the past year, fleecing foreigners - and Russians too if they have dollars - offers the quickest and easiest route to wealth.

According to the note, I should now be paying dollars 4,100 ( pounds 2,850) a month for the use of two rooms and a kitchen. Never mind that this amounts to more than 2 million roubles, well over 30 times what most Russians earn in a year; never mind that my flat has wonky plumbing and surly neighbours; never mind that Moscow, for all its gritty charm, is bankrupt not booming. None of this matters. Such is the logic of 'international standards'.

Capitalism in Russia is an odd, very greedy creature. The market has little to do with it. It would be encouraging to report that everyone is on the make. Unfortunately, very few are. There are lots of old ladies trying to make ends meet by selling milk and dried fish on the pavement; lots of young men hawking newspapers and the latest translation of Agatha Christie in the metro. But real business is an exclusive club. More often than not, membership hinges on a single qualification: access to something foreigners want. No one wants roubles. Only dollars count.

This is hardly a new discovery. The Communist Party knew it all along, as the former Soviet prime minister, Valentin Pavlov, boasted in an interview this week with Sovietskaya Rossiya. The problem with Russia's leaders, he complained, is that they do not know how to cheat foreigners. The Communists, he said, did and did it with panache. 'They brought us their money as if we were a savings bank.'

Mr Pavlov, who awaits trial for his role in the failed 1991 putsch, is proud of the lies that attracted Western largesse. 'We kept secrets from the International Monetary Fund and the Western banks. We tried to maintain the impression that our gold reserves were solid.' In reality, Moscow had already squandered its gold. But the trick worked: 'We attracted major credits, but not the way we do today when we go around panhandling, begging from foreign states.'

Mr Pavlov may lament the demise of deceit as an instrument of state policy, but he need not worry that a talent for squeezing money out of gullible foreigners has been lost. It has been taken over with gusto by much of Russia's new business elite. Hardly surprising since many of Russia's new capitalists were, only a few years ago, loyal Communists.

And none were more loyal those who managed to get apartments in my building on Kotelnicheskaya embankment. Just as the party was good to them, so too is the market, or what passes for it in Moscow. The first anonymous note stuffed through every letter box in the building has been followed by an avalanche of signed flyers from Moscow property firms. All promise to deliver the holy grail of Russian capitalism - a rich foreigner. 'Renting your apartment,' reads one, fizzing with almost religious fervour, 'will change your life and make you very wealthy. If you are interested in this unique chance to profit, phone our agency today.'

It had to happen sooner or later, and yesterday it did: I got a call from my landlady. She is far from grasping. In fact, few tenants have ever been so lucky. But she had been talking to her friends. They had told her all about 'international standards'. Sadly, she said, my rent would have to go up. And, with no less sadness, I told her I would have to move out. Sometimes, though, the free market can work. I had wanted to move anyway. Thanks to 'international standards' I now have an excuse.