Yeltsin scrambles to rescue rouble

IMF quibbling brings Russia's financial crisis to boiling point and hands weapon to President's foes. Phil Reeves in Moscow reports
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RUSSIA still faced the spectre of a full-blown rouble crisis last night as its panic-prone markets waited fretfully to find out whether the outside world will help Boris Yeltsin in his mission to defend the battered currency.

The President yesterday sought to head off turmoil by appearing on television with assurances that Russia had enough reserves to avoid financial collapse, and to announce plans to crack down on corporate tax dodgers by confiscating their assets.

But one of his officials, Deputy Finance Minister Oleg Vyugin, made it clear that the country was still on the brink, and could need a large new loan from the International Monetary Fund. Although Russian shares rose sharply and the rouble strengthened - both bouyed by the tripling of interest rates to 150 per cent - it was clear the crisis had eased but not ended.

Russia is the victim of a combination of bad luck, its own incompetence, the stifling legacy of the Soviet system, and - unexpectedly - International Monetary Fund policies. The plunge in world oil prices and the melt-down in Asia are external factors beyond its control, but both have been damaging to the budget and confidence in the economy.

The dismal record of tax collection is ultimately the government's responsibility. Mr Yeltsin's abrupt decision to sack the government of Viktor Chernomyrdin in March, replacing his prime minister with an unknown 35-year-old, also rattled investor confidence, and must - until his protege proves otherwise - be chalked up as an own goal.

Less blame can be attached to Mr Yeltsin and his team for the historical burden on the public purse of millions whose jobs are no longer viable but who still receive the perks of the Communist welfare system, from free housing to kindergartens. That, too, is a crucial factor.

But there is another player whose role has helped bring the crisis to a boiling point: the IMF, the very body charged by Western nations with offering Mr Yeltsin a helping hand in the transition to a market economy.

For days, the panic-stricken markets have been waiting to find out whether the IMF would approve the next $670m (pounds 410m) tranche of a $9.2bn loan to Moscow. Instead of doing so, the fund has chosen to quibble with the new government over its fiscal policy. The Prime Minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, wants to concentrate on cutting expenditure. The IMF favours trying to collect more taxes. In more stable circumstances, haggling with debtors over economic policy is part of the fund's duty. But now was not the time. When the markets needed to be reassured most, the fund has prevaricated, deepening the mood of panic and bringing the rouble under increasing pressure.

"If the currency goes down, then the IMF is completely culpable," said Al Breach, of the Russian European Centre for Economic Policy. "Both sides agreed on the need to cut the budget deficit. Is it the IMF's job to tell the Russians how to do it? Isn't that the job of sovereign government?"

In doing so, the IMF was taking a considerable gamble. If the rouble eventually collapses, or is devalued, Russia's reforms will be in tatters. Unable to raise money by borrowing, the government would be forced to print cash. With that and soaring shop prices (about half Russia's consumer goods are imported), multiple-digit inflation would loom again, reviving memories of the early 1990s when millions of Russians saw their savings vaporise overnight. Mr Yeltsin's principle economic achievements - stabilising the currency and bringing inflation under control - would be in ashes.

There would also be a political price tag. Russia's 147 million population is famously long-suffering, but there are signs that public protests are now hardening and becoming more effective. Thousands of coal miners - the force who helped winkle Mikhail Gorbachev from power - demonstrated their industrial muscle this month by blocking rail lines across the country, severing the Trans-Siberian artery route and bringing hundreds of trains to a standstill for 10 days. Such resentment, shared by many millions of unpaid workers and pensioners, would deepen.

So, too, would the pressure on Mr Yeltsin and the temptation for him to blame others for his government's mistakes. Past performances reveal that he is ready to sacrifice reform-minded ministers and replace them with reactionaries if the public mood is ugly enough. Mr Kiriyenko's term in office may yet be brief.

It is not impossible that the President's own position would be threatened. The conditions, however, remain in his favour: there is no single, organised powerful opposition voice in Russia, parliament is constitutionally weak, and the victims of market reforms are spread over a vast territory. The record of his Communist and nationalist opponents is one of barking rather than biting. That said, the unsettling silhouettes of the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov and General Alexander Lebed - both nationalist-leaning leaders tipped as future presidents - loom on the skyline.

In the end, the West seems certain to support Mr Yeltsin in keeping his opponents at bay. Yesterday, Mr Vyugin indicated that the IMF may have to help out with support "on a different scale" to its $670m tranche. But the IMF has so far sounded unenthusiastic. Mr Yeltsinplans to call US President Bill Clinton and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to ask them for "moral support". They may also find themselves digging into their pockets to help their old Siberian friend.

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