Panic Buying Empties
Shelves in Russian Shops
By Lawrence Sheets
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Staple items like flour, matches, rice and salt had been sold out from some Moscow stores on Friday after days of heavy buying by shoppers fearing steep price increases. Even toilet paper -- often in short supply during the spartan days of Soviet communism, and the subject of a hundred bitter old jokes -- was unavailable in some locations. ``The last of it was gone a few days ago,'' said Valentina Belakova, a store clerk at the Dorogomilovsky supermarket in central Moscow. ``We are hoping for a new shipment from France soon. Otherwise it's going to be newspapers again.'' The sprawling supermarket is a typical, moderately-priced Moscow food outlet. On Friday it teemed with activity as shoppers unloaded the rapidly devaluing rouble and stocked up. Supplies of porridge, a traditional Russian staple, had also dried up. ``It was here just two days ago and now it's gone,'' said shopper Svetlana Petrenka, 32. ``I am relatively well off, but the poorer people are panicking because they know the prices are rising every day on some things,'' she said, describing her profession as ``a wheeler-dealer.'' The rouble has plunged 62 percent in three weeks, since the country entered the throes of a deep financial and economic crisis. Friday's official rate was fixed in electronic trading on Friday at 16.9900 to the dollar against 13.4608 on Thursday and compared with 6.31 on August. Savings -- many of which are locked in Russian banks which do not have the liquidity to pay depositors -- have sharply lost value as a result. Stores have hiked prices on many items, especially imports, to keep pace. Vechernyaya Moskva newspaper said that prices had already gone up an average of 20 percent for food as of Thursday. Imported coffee and beer prices were up at least 80 percent. But some prices remained unchanged. The affluent few who are paid in salaries indexed to western currencies have found that they have actually benefitted, as in some cases their roubles go much further and prices are effectively lower. But elderly people on meagre state pensions, which have not been adjusted or indexed since the rouble began collapsing, will be most hard hit, as will other people on fixed rouble incomes. Those among a queue of chattering old women at the dairy counter had differing ideas as to whom to blame for the mess. ``They are all guilty,'' said Maria Fokina, 75, of the country's political leadership. ``Yeltsin -- I understand him, but he's an old and ill man. He isn't really even running the country any more. The Communists? I was one once myself, but now all they do is wag their tongues back and forth,'' she said, gesturing by puckering her lips to and fro and squinting. Serafima Sheikina, 76, blamed ``Jews and the Americans,'' reflecting views dominant under dictator Josef Stalin. ``America wants to colonise us. They've driven us to poverty,'' said they tiny, hunched over woman clad in a tattered raincoat. At a smaller grocery near the big Kutuzovsky thoroughfare, a woman working the counter who identified herself only as Lena said supplies of rice, flour macaroni, sugar, salt, and matches had run out. At other nearby stores, most of the items could be found, suggesting supply problems were localised and that there were no systematic shortages facing the city. Many foreign suppliers say they have halted supplies to Russia not paid for in advance for the time being. Denmark said its food exports to Russia had ground to a halt and a big meat producer, Danish Crown, said it laid off 50 butchers this week as a result of the crisis. Exchange offices were selling dollars for as many as 21 roubles each on Friday afternoon, although chaos reigned, with a widely differing rate from one place to the next. Many dealers said they were out of dollars or roubles or both.