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Russians Suspect Plot After Ruble's Gyrations : Money: The currency surges after its recent tailspin. But store prices don't come back down.

October 14, 1994|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Natalia Berseneva, a Moscow street sweeper, got paid Thursday.

She spent three-quarters of her monthly salary on two bags of groceries for her children.

As she lugged the sacks home at dusk in a cold drizzle, a defeated slump to her shoulders, Berseneva said that she reckoned that Russia's "high people" had probably made money this week as the ruble yo-yoed against the U.S. dollar.

But she was more worried about how to survive another month of even higher prices with just $7 left in the pocket of her tattered raincoat.

Better-off Russians watched with similar bewilderment as the value of their rubles shot up a record 24.8% Thursday--and prices on imported goods did not budge downward.

Shopkeepers had marked up their wares Tuesday when the ruble nose-dived from 3,081 to 3,926 to the dollar, sparking a panic. Prices did not move on Wednesday, though the ruble stabilized at 3,736 after President Boris N. Yeltsin sacked his finance minister, called for an investigation and promised to save his countrymen from hard-currency penury.

On Thursday, the Russian Central Bank obediently poured between $140 million and $155 million into the currency market, pushing the ruble back up to 2,994 to the dollar. But jittery merchants still kept prices at up to 50% higher than what they were last weekend.

The financial whiplash created new resentment about who had profited from the turmoil in the second superpower's currency.

Ever fertile ground for conspiracy theories, Moscow roiled with rumors Thursday about who might have masterminded the ruble roller coaster.

The chief suspect was Central Bank Chairman Viktor V. Gerashchenko, who announced Thursday that he will not resign, although Parliament plans to vote next Friday on whether to fire him.

Economist Andrei Illarionov, director of the Institute of Economic Analysis, accused Gerashchenko of deliberately triggering this week's panic, as well as the similar currency crises of January, 1991, and July, 1993.

"The events that occurred on Oct. 11 were organized entirely by the Central Bank of Russia," Illarionov charged in a news conference. Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev also called for Gerashchenko's head. Others suggested a cabal of powerful banks, importers or oil companies could have paid off government officials to let the ruble slide.

"This was all a big game," said Volodya, 32, one of Russia's new bankers. "I don't know if the Central Bank was directly involved in it or not."

Volodya, who did not give his last name, calculated that anyone with $300 million worth of rubles to invest and advance knowledge of the Central Bank's intentions could have earned $90 million profit in two days.

"How much would you offer as a bribe if you knew you would be $90 million richer tomorrow?" Volodya asked.

On the other hand, he said, "it may have all been caused by Russian stupidity and carelessness."

Dark conjectures were heard at the highest levels. Yeltsin's press secretary, Vyacheslav V. Kostikov, called the panic "an attempted financial coup" against the president. He suggested that the perpetrators could be former Communist Party officials, who are believed to control millions of dollars of party money that vanished along with the Soviet Union.

"I cannot exclude the possibility that a secret Communist Party weapon worked--money stolen from the country and the people," Kostikov told the Interfax news agency.

Meanwhile, the man accused of causing Russia's first major securities crash was released from prison on Thursday.

Sergei Mavrody, head of the MMM investment company, had been jailed on tax evasion charges after the spectacular collapse of MMM share prices in July. He stepped out of the Sailor's Rest prison and into a blue Volvo, which whisked him away without his having said how he had won his release.

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