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COLUMN ONE : Dreams on Layaway in Moscow : The Fili department store is one of the first to get final approval to go private. Among employees, there is no lack of enthusiasm. Problem is, the shelves are bare.

January 22, 1992|CAREY GOLDBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Lubov Sultanova, the kinetic director of the Fili department store, signed and stamped the set of receipts at her desk with a quick flourish and looked up with a wicked grin.

"I think Igor may not be too happy with the price, but tell him we're privateers now," she announced with unabashed satisfaction as she sent the forms off to a regular customer.

After months of bureaucratic confusion, disputes and debate, the Moscow government has finally begun to sell off the state-owned stores that were the Soviet shopper's only resort for decades.

And the Fili department store, a shabby but unusually cheerful emporium in a southwestern Moscow suburb, is one of the historic first 15 to get final city approval to go private.

The shuffling, bleached-blonde saleswomen in their rust-colored tunics and work slippers, the largely empty clothes racks and pathetically bare window displays all still bear the dismal imprint of Communist-style retailing.

But the Fili--and the 10,000 Moscow establishments like it that have submitted requests to privatize--wants to be different. And the critical economic reforms imposed on Russia by President Boris N. Yeltsin depend in good part on their success.

"We're trying to go as fast as we can," said Larissa Piyasheva, the economist overseeing the capital's store privatization program. "All big economic and social reforms in this country always began from Moscow, and this one will, too."

The faster reasonably priced goods appear on the privatized stores' shelves, she said, the better the chances of avoiding the riots by the newly impoverished masses that are widely predicted for late winter or early spring.

Someday soon, Piyasheva hopes, the thousands of private Moscow store owners will find their own ways around the dying state trade system that long forced all stores to submit to centrally dictated prices and supplies, helping create the massive shortages that are now fueling astronomical price rises.

Wheeling and dealing for their own profit, they will freely exchange their rubles for dollars and vice versa, importing loads of sorely needed food and consumer goods and encouraging local suppliers to produce until there is enough competition to drive prices down.

That is the Moscow government's vision. And Sultanova, along with her team of 58 workers, is ready to go.

"We don't care how we make money," said Sultanova, an enthusiastic convert to capitalism. "We'll sell anything that's in demand. If it's profitable, I'll go for it."

Over the last year and a half, the Fili department store's workers have been leasing the store from the government and already beginning to learn the drill of courting suppliers and selling off goods as fast as possible.

Sultanova, a whirlwind of ideas and projects, has finagled deals with Yugoslav and Italian suppliers, helping them with storage, customs and permits in exchange for the privilege of selling their products. At the same time, she has promoted ties with Russian factories despite their declining production, in search of anything to fill the chronically bare shelves.

Now, however, with the store about to become her own property--although shared with other workers--she can let her fantasies run wild.

"I want good, up-to-date equipment, good design and a good firm that can sponsor us for a while," she said, her eyes alight.

"You know what my dream is?" she asked. "What store is the biggest in Los Angeles? I want my store to be like that. My dream is to have a store where you walk in and there are so many things you don't even know what they're all for. And my dream is that not one buyer, no matter how small their pay, even a babushka on a pension, doesn't have to leave without buying."

On the way to that dream, Sultanova faces a long series of challenges that begins with the first obstacle to privatizing: scraping together the money to formally buy the store from the state.

With its 13,500 square feet of space, including a display area of about 6,000 square feet, the Fili department store's premises have been appraised by a city inventory commission as being worth about 1.6 million rubles--only $16,000--but now Moscow officials are saying that initial evaluations could double, triple or more.

At a meeting of store employees in October, the "labor collective" voted to privatize, and Sultanova said she is now working to turn the store into a joint-stock society, something like a small corporation.

The problem, she said, is that for the store to get a good start, it will need much more initial capital than the workers alone will be able to afford, and so she is searching for a powerful partner who would help finance the newly independent store but not insist on running it.

The other problem with going private, Sultanova said, is that almost all of the workers want to become members of the joint-stock society--owners--and she fears that would make the store's management too unwieldy to work.

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