- 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.