Rouble conmen exploit market

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The Independent Online
A MONTH ago, 65-year-old Tatiana Simonova queued for six hours in the snow outside the Kapranov Cultural and Technical Palace. She finally got through the door and, like thousands of others before her, rushed to hand over her savings to a well-dressed young man behind a chipped Formica table.

He wrote out a contract, signed it and stamped it with an official seal with the name of his company, Amaris. He told her to come back in a month to collect her investment - plus 120 per cent profit.

This week, Mrs Simonova was back in line outside the grey concrete building on Moskovsky Prospekt. Many of the people who had waited with her in January were also there. So too was the table with the Formica top. The man who sat behind it, though, was not. He has vanished - along with her and everybody else's money.

Police refer to the affair as Case No 745721 and have set up a special squad to try to track down the culprits. Local officials show a bit more panache. They call it the 'scam of the century' and estimate that at least 350,000 people have been bamboozled by Amaris and a second fly-by-night investment company called Revansh.

Exactly how many people have been cheated and how much was stolen will not be known for months, when people stop queuing to add their names to a growing list of victims. Some lost cash, others; others lost privatisation vouchers - chits issued by the government as part of the world's biggest sell-off of state assets. Many, including Mrs Simonova, lost both: she invested 32,000 roubles ( pounds 39) in cash and six privatisation vouchers nominally worth 60,000 roubles.

If the exact scale of the swindle is still being calculated, one thing is already clear. St Petersburg has not seen so many angry people on the streets since August 1991, when thousands gathered to protest against the putsch in Moscow. Most of the victims are old. With pensions of under 2,800 roubles a month, they jumped at the chance to beat an annual inflation rate of more than 2,000 per cent.

Their age, though, has not stopped them from organising a string of noisy protests. They have blocked Moskovsky Prospekt twice in the past week, staged daily demonstrations outside the mayor's office and indundated police with complaints. Last week, in their biggest protest so far, some 100,000 turned out to demand compensation. Several factories have set up vigilante squads to hunt down the ringleaders of the scam. Workers at the Kirov Factory vow to 'hang them by their legs in St Isaac's Square'.

So far, the only person anyone can get their hands on is Anvar Seitbagin, the hapless director of the Kapranov Cultural Palace. His crime was to have rented out part of his building. He sits in his office upstairs, besieged by tearful investors begging for their money back. 'I have become everyone's scapegoat,' he complains. 'I rent space to anyone who wants it. We all have to swim in the market as best we can.'

The local government has promised to pay a token sum of 5,000 roubles and an official appeared on television appealing for calm. But, officials insist, investors have only themselves to blame. 'I think this affair should have a beneficial effect in the long run,' says Pavel Gorbunov, a director of the St Petersburg Committee for Property Management, the body responsible for handing out privatisation vouchers and selling off the city's assets. 'It will teach people that if they play risky games they can't cry about it later. People are far too greedy for money.'

Indeed, there were plenty of signs that something was amiss from the start. Amaris and Revansh promised interest rates more than 10 times higher than those offered by state banks. Amaris had no property and conducted its business from a disused bar at the back of the Kapranov Cultural Centre and a string of hole-in-the-wall collection-points scattered across the city. Its total capital was 10,000 roubles (less than pounds 13). Such details, though, were lost in the rush to cash in.

'How were we to know what was going on?' says Mrs Simonova. 'The government registered the firm, not us. It's now up to the government to pay us back.' Officials are unmoved: 'This is the old socialist mentality. When something goes wrong everyone blames the state,' replies Mr Gorbunov.

Rather than greed, though, the main element seems to have been ignorance. Russia's pell-mell rush to the marketplace has left people like Mrs Smirnova baffled.

(Photograph omitted)