Russia launches big sell-off

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The Independent Online
BORIS YELTSIN calls it 'a ticket to the free-market economy'. His predecessor, Mikhail Gorbachev, dismisses it as a 'shameful sham'. From tomorrow, millions of Russians will be able to speak for themselves when the government launches a sell-off of state assets in the hope of transforming the country into a land of private property owners.

The plan, unveiled by President Yeltsin in August, on the first anniversary of the abortive putsch, grants each of Russia's 150 million people, including children, a tiny chunk of their collapsing economy. This will come in the form of a voucher worth 10,000 roubles ( pounds 23) that can be traded for cash or used to buy shares in state firms. So far only 7 million vouchers have been printed and it will take at least three months before the entire population receives a ticket to what Mr Yeltsin says will be a new age of capitalism.

The sell-off begins tomorrow, when state savings banks in Moscow, St Petersburg and parts of Siberia will issue the first batch of vouchers to anyone who can produce a valid certificate of residence. The novelty of the scheme is reflected in the borrowing of the English word 'voucher', which has spawned jokes playing on a pun with the Russian word for 'wolf'. There is, however, widespread unease over the likely consequences of the scheme, which many fear will play into the hands of speculators and well-connected apparatchiks, the two main beneficiaries of economic reform so far.

The other main plank of the government's economic reform - the end of fixed prices for most goods - has triggered inflation, which is expected to reach 2,200 per cent this year. There is growing alarm, fanned by an increasingly confident and powerful conservative opposition, that promises made for privatisation may mask more misery to come.

Most Russians initially welcomed President Yeltsin's promise to share out property valued at 1,300bn roubles. A couple in his hometown even named their baby Voucher as a tribute. Delight at the prospect of vouchers worth more than three month's average salary has faded, despite a television advertising campaign devised with the help of consultants from Madison Avenue.

'This whole thing is a trick,' the former Soviet president, Mr Gorbachev, said yesterday at a press conference in Moscow. 'It will not make people property owners but will only alienate them further. This is a manoeuvre to divert the attention of the people, an attempt to buy time.'

Equally dismissive is Igor Klochkov, leader of the Federation of Independent Trade Unions, which claims to represent more than 60 million workers. He, too, called a press conference yesterday to denounce the plan: 'They say privatisation will save us all. This is not true. It is pure demagoguery.' Another powerful critic is the Civil Union, an alliance of managers in state-owned firms, who worry about losing their jobs.

Critics have already succeeded in limiting the scope of privatisation. Only 35 per cent of around 5,000 enterprises, most of them hopelessly decrepit, will be open to purchase by voucher. Energy and military-related concerns will continue, for the time being, to be held by the state. Workers and managers will also be allowed to buy a controlling share of their firms, a provision that effectively prevents any full-scale shake-up of state industry. Nor will vouchers buy access to shops, which are being sold off for cash under a separate privatisation programme.

Rather than hanging on to the vouchers as an investment, many Russians will be tempted to sell them immediately. Such a cash-in would not derail the government's economic policy, though it would fuel inflation. But it would defeat the dream of making vouchers the economic equivalent of a vote - a stake in the country's future, shared by the entire population.

A poll last month by the Interfax news agency showed that nearly half the population regards the vouchers as a trick. Another poll said the number of people expecting to receive any benefits had fallen from 61 to 35 per cent.