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Russia: Shortages Spread, Prices Go Up, But Public Perseveres

Moscow, 3 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- At the gleaming new Manezh shopping mall in central Moscow, large "Sales" signs are visible everywhere in the display windows. Smaller size signs inside the shops notify clients however that "the price of the item you are choosing has been increased by 25 percent. Sorry for the inconvenience."

Several shops have posted signs, explaining that credit cards --including those issued by foreign banks-- are not accepted for the time being. Traders fear that money transfers may not be accepted by the haywire banking system.

Dima Ovchinnik, 25, who recently lost his job with SBS-Agrobank is standing in line at British store "TJ Collection" to buy a pair of shoes. Despite being laid-off and having no real savings to speak of, Dima has decided to spend what little money he has on stylish footwear. "Life is not over," he says, "I try not to think too far into the future."

His girlfriend Oksana, who "for the moment" is working five days a week in a real-estate office, highlights the difference in generational attitudes to the current crisis. "My parents are all doom and gloom," she says, "maybe they are right, but I don't want to be like that. My mother stood in line several days in a row last week, to get her rubles out of her bank. The moment she got the cash, she rushed to buy the fridge she had wanted for some time. The price had doubled. She bought it anyway and now she's feeling guilty, thinking that she would have been better buying foodstuffs to fill the old fridge."

Oksana questions her mother's choice: "I prefer to buy something silly, that maybe I don't need badly, but that will look nice on a dark winter day. In this shop, they still take credit cards. My company paid my salary last week, but I have been unable to collect it. So, as long as it is accepted, I will use the card."

Is this the philosophy of the Yuppie who never experienced the hardship of Soviet times and who refuses to believe that the country, locked in its worst economic and political crisis since the breakup of the Soviet Union, could ever go back to the times of empty shops and long queues? Or, on the contrary, a display of Russian fatalism?

Irina Sergeeva, who turned 45 this week and cleans apartments to earn money for her family, says it is "a mixture of the two, plus the feeling that children know their parents will never let them down. We know how to survive, because we have seen it all."

Sergeeva and her husband are officially employed as engineers at a state-run construction company. They last received their monthly salaries of 600 rubles --worth some $100 before devaluation and reduced to less than $50 at today's rate in April. And so, they work unofficially elsewhere. "What do you think, we have been living all the same during the summer, we have even been able to take our tent and our old kayak and we have been on holiday."

Sergeeva says that "We are used to hardship, we grew up that way and we have always believed we'll end up the same way. I clean apartments twice a week for people who can pay me $25 for a day's work. My boss at work is a nice guy. He understands, and when I ask for a day off he doesn't cause any problems. My husband has been working all summer at the dacha, with my father. We never stopped growing potatoes, and other vegetables in our garden. My father lives there. He had a cow but it was too much work, so last year he exchanged it for three goats. Milk and potatoes is a very good diet for an old man, and he helps us, too." The Russian media report that businesses dealing with the importing and distribution of foodstuffs are paralyzed and domestic production is in trouble, because of the weakening ruble. The small and medium businesses --Russian, as well as foreign-run-- are collapsing, strangled by the falling ruble, the impossibility of taking large amounts of cash out of bank accounts and the risk involved in money transfers between Russian and foreign banks.

It is difficult to predict how long food shops will be able to stay in business, in the event that imports dry up. For the moment, customers in Moscow foodstores and wholesale markets show few signs of panic, despite a sharp rise in prices in most shops.

Shop clerks at a medium private supermarket on Leningradsky prospect, one of Moscow main streets, say that cooking oil, sugar, macaroni, rice, oatmeal and household cleaning products are selling at a fast pace, but other staples are more or less stable. In a smaller shop, prices grew threefold since last week and some foreign items started disappearing from the shelves altogether, in a sign that supplies are starting to dwindle.

At Seventh Continent, one of Moscow's biggest supermarket chains, with several shops across town and popular among well-off Muscovites, shop clerks busy refilling shelves said people were buying "probably a bit more then usual, but not dramatically more."

Outside the shop, located near the foreign ministry, Anna Burova, a 52-year old schoolteacher said that she had "wanted to have a look," but had opted for a trip to a wholesale market instead. "The price of a metro coupon and street telephones has just gone up by one third, flat rents have gone up, too" she said. "I think it's just better to forget that places like this ever existed here," she added.

Burova said that "what is happening is very unfair, unfair to ordinary people like me, who just manage to survive. It has been unfair during recent years, as only criminals got rich, and it is unfair now, with politicians only talking about protecting people's saving in banks. What about people who don't have savings at all, because they can barely survive? What about the people who are being laid off now? Do you think the Duma really worries about us? I don't think so. I can tell you just one thing. If they don't need the ordinary people, the ordinary people will show that we don't need them either."

Among the people interviewed yesterday by RFE/RL on the streets of Moscow, no one said that things could improve in the foreseeable future. Some were resigned, others pessimistic, but nobody showed even a modicum of optimism.