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Russian Bank Reforms 'Fishy,' Economist Alleges

July 30, 1993|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — A senior Western economist and adviser to the Russian government said Thursday that Russia's Central Bank should be investigated for fraud in connection with the sudden monetary reform that has thrown the financial system into chaos.

Anders Aslund, director of the Stockholm Institute of East European Economics, presented what he called "circumstantial evidence" that the Central Bank has given cash credits in rubles worth about $588 billion to former Soviet republics, presumably in return for kickbacks to bank officials.

Aslund suggested that the bank's invalidation Saturday of all rubles issued before 1993 was an attempt to cover up the missing money.

He said the cash transfers, followed by the bank's refusal to account for that money despite repeated demands by Finance Minister Boris G. Fyodorov, could "hardly" have occurred without the knowledge of Central Bank Chairman Viktor V. Gerashchenko.

Asked whether he was accusing Gerashchenko of fraud, Aslund said, "I suspect him of it. I think it's the only rational explanation, because something very fishy is going on."

A distinguished economist, Aslund has served as the free-market guru to Boris N. Yeltsin's young economic reformers.

A recent audit of the Central Bank by the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand found severe financial irregularities with millions of dollars unaccounted for, according to economists and press reports. The firm's report, commissioned by the Russian Parliament, has not been made public.

The audit "shows a tremendous mess, with enormous management failings at the least, and furious signs of worse," said Harvard University economics professor Jeffrey Sachs, another adviser to the Russian government, in a telephone interview Thursday.

Some bank transactions were so murky that the accountants said they could not trace them and did not sign off on the final audit, Sachs said.

The Central Bank decree, which took the rest of the government by surprise, was issued early Saturday morning while Yeltsin was vacationing outside Moscow and Finance Minister Fyodorov was in the United States.

Though Yeltsin later softened the Central Bank order, it still leaves Russians unable to change more than $100 in old ruble bills for new ones. It has created long lines of angry people at the banks and an instant black market in old bills.

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