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Russia: Motorists Full Of Anger Over Empty Gas Tanks

Motorists in Russia are angry. Gasoline is becomingly increasingly scarce as oil companies divert more and more fuel to lucrative foreign markets -- and the shortages are coming at the peak of the summer holiday season. Our correspondent in Moscow looks at the reasons behind the shortages and the prospect that Russian motorists may soon be paying far more for fuel than they're used to.

Moscow, 29 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- If scenes from Russia's nightly news programs are any indication, motorists across the country have reached the boiling point.

Television news programs now regularly feature footage of long lines of sweltering motorists, cursing the government and the oil companies while seemingly willing to pay just about any price for their coveted fuel.

Although gas prices in Russia are low by world standards -- hovering at about five rubles (20 U.S. cents) a liter -- they're far higher than Russians are used to paying, and motorists are hopping mad.

Sergei -- a 46-year-old dentist from Moscow -- is typical. He says he was planning to drive to the Astrakhan region (southern Russia) to go fishing for his holiday. But now, after watching the news and hearing advice from friends, he's staying home. "In this country," he says, "even taking a vacation is a problem."

Motorists generally blame the government for the shortages and higher prices, but the real problem is the near doubling of world oil prices that has taken place this year.

Last December, when oil prices were depressed, Russian oil sold on world markets for under nine dollars a barrel. Now, the price has reached $19.

On one hand, the higher energy prices are positive. Russia's economy depends heavily on revenue from oil exports, and the country's miserable tax collection record means every second dollar the country earns originates from fossil fuel.

But the rising prices have created tensions between the government -- which wants to keep gasoline artificially cheap to make motorists happy -- and powerful Russian oil companies that want to capitalize on the higher world prices.

Analysts say the government faces a tricky decision: should the higher prices be passed on to consumers, as oil executives suggest, or should oil companies be obliged to refine more crude for the domestic market and cut exports?

In an electoral year, this is also a political issue. Average Russians are still suffering from last year's financial crisis. If gasoline prices were to increase five-fold to 24 rubles ($1) a liter by year's end -- as some oil executives suggest -- owning a car in Russia would become a prohibitive luxury. Politicians contesting December's parliamentary elections would pay the ultimate price.

Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin recognizes the problem and is expected to meet representatives of oil companies later this week. Stepashin says the rising world oil prices are "a time bomb" for Russia.

It's not clear yet what options are available. Russian media reports that in the Volgograd region -- following a request by frustrated motorists -- the local council is calling on the federal government to nationalize the oil industry to guarantee fair prices.

This is still considered an extreme measure, but what's clear is that motorists will have to fork over more rubles for fuel in the coming months. Russia's Fuel and Energy Minister Viktor Kalyuzhny recently forecast that a 20-percent rise in gasoline prices could take place before the end of the year.