Out of Russia: For a fistful of dollars ..

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - One solution is to order a turkey sandwich from Jack's. They deliver and the doorstep is not a good place for a long quarrel about the Federal Reserve in Washington, particularly at the start of Moscow's coldest winter in years. If you have an American passport, the cashier at the US Embassy can sometimes help. There must be a few other places too.

Otherwise, you are in trouble. Everyone knows how Russia has two currencies. The number of dollars sloshing around the country - 20 billion or so but no one really knows - exceeds the total value of roubles. With an election just over a week away, politicians of every stripe bemoan this 'dollarisation'. Boris Fyodorov, the monetarist zealot in charge of Russian's Finance Ministry, frets about it before earnest economists in Moscow. Sergei Baburin, a diehard nationalist standing for a seat in Sibera, knows of no easier way to fire up angry old-timers in Omsk.

All of them miss the point. Russia has not two currencies but three. There is the rouble, the dollar and . . . the crumpled dollar. Things used to be straightforward. Under communism, you went to jail for trading dollars and waited in line if you stuck with roubles. Then came reform. For a while it was simple. Some shops took dollars, others roubles. Suddenly whole new vistas of confusion and conflict have emerged. Some dollars, it turns out, are a lot more equal than others. The problem is not forgery, though fakes abound. But try using a genuine greenback with the smallest tear or faintest hint of Biro ink and you might as well offer Ukrainian karbovantsi or another post-Soviet cuckoo currency. Shops reject them outright, while currency exchanges, now to be found on every street, so lucrative is their business, shave several hundred roubles off the going rate.

The problem has stirred anguished debate in the columns of the Moscow Times, the city's excellent English-language newspaper. 'Please let us be treated like human beings when changing our hard currency into roubles,' pleaded Charles Storm vans Gravesande, military attache at the Dutch Embassy.

Another letter accused even the US Embassy of jumping on the bandwagon and refusing all but crisp dollar bills hot off the presses. Anger reaches beyond foreigners. Just how far I realised a few weeks ago on a trip to Voronezh. I was invited to lunch by a local organiser for the National Salvation Front. Other guests included an embittered Russian from Estonia who could not understand why the Red Army had left and why he had lost his job running a military plant and a far-right academic who spent the entire meal drawing diagrams on a paper napkin to illustrate how western banks, at the CIA's bidding, had destroyed the Soviet Union. But, they finally admitted, even the CIA makes mistakes. It had not understood that, in Russia, not all dollars have the same subversive weight. They seemed to like this. The meal ended with a sheepish question: could I trade an old dollars 100 bill for a new one?

Much of the cursing has been directed at Russia's Central Bank, although it denies any discrimination against old dollars. All, old or new, soiled or otherwise, it insists, are valid. Viktor Melnikov, chief of the bank's foreign-currency department, has just spent two months drawing up a long list of criteria to define once and for all what makes a real dollar. Andrew Jackson, who adorns the dollars 20, must have beady eyes made up of a circle with a pin- head pupil; Benjamin Franklin on the dollars 100 must have the proper wrinkles on his forehead. Rules, though, have nothing to do with it. Russia has 1,900 commercial banks, 700 of them licensed to trade in hard currency and each running scores, sometimes hundreds, of hole-in-the-wall exchanges. There is too much money to be made, says Mr Melnikov, by short-changing customers with bogus distinctions between old and new dollars. 'This is racket. They call it the market.'

But there is more to this problem than just greed. Also to blame is the suspicion that the US government probably operates much like the Russian one. This means periodic decrees rendering the bulk of all bank notes worthless overnight. Moscow is a jittery and mistrustful place. Even hard currency has turned soft.