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Scenes from Russia's ruble crisis

Moscow—The ruble is falling. Russia is defaulting on its foreign debts. Banks are collapsing. In a country where 50 percent of all food is imported, imports are grinding to a halt. Countless jobs are at risk. And tens of millions of Russians may lose their savings for the third time since the 1991 collapse of Communism. Meanwhile, the fallout is shaking world markets. When Russian president Boris Yeltsin surfaces, he looks old, confused, incompetent, and embarrassed.

On Monday, after a four-hour meeting, the Communist-dominated Russian parliament refused to confirm Yeltsin's choice for prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin—the same man Yeltsin fired from the post five months ago after five years on the job, the same man who is widely believed to have steered Russia into its current crisis. Under the constitution, the parliament has three opportunities to confirm the president's nomination, or else Yeltsin can dissolve the parliament and call for early elections.

The Communists want Yeltsin to yield some of his constitutional authority in exchange for their support. That's something Yeltsin—who rules Russia like a czar, by presidential decree instead of by law—is, so far, unwilling to do. But he may have no choice.

Despite the upheaval, Bill Clinton has gone ahead with his scheduled Moscow summit with Yeltsin. That's perhaps to escape his own domestic crucifixion, criticism, and ridicule. But the situation is so bad that there isn't even a cabinet in place for Clinton to meet. (Given the shaky grip that both Clinton and Yeltsin have on power, it's no surprise that comparisons to President Richard Nixon's visit with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev just before Nixon resigned in disgrace have already been made.)

Last week, Russia revealed to the world what many Russians knew too well: post-Communist Russia is a house of cards. One flick, and the ruble turns to rubble. Many members of Russia's current ruling elite are kleptocrats who ferociously protects their pocketbooks. Though they are criminals, they are capitalist criminals. And that means no return to Communism—if the kleptocrats can help it.

While the rich prosper, many ordinary Russians are regularly not paid for up to nine months at a time, and, in some cases, years. But they aren't ready to turn the clock back either—at least not yet. Nor is Russia, for all its madness, another Indonesia. On Monday, word spread that Yeltsin was thinking about implementing emergency rule. Yet while few Russians have ruled out the possibility of massive strikes and riots, they don't foresee any such chaos in the near future.

That might surprise some of the viewers watching footage of the Russians who line up, day after day, to withdraw their life savings from banks on the verge of collapse. But the media picture is distorted. Despite last week's early television images, there is for now no panic on the streets of Moscow, no frenzied anti-American sentiment. Walk down Moscow streets, and the shops and cafés and parks are full. Indeed, it's difficult to tell there's a crisis underway. But the uncertainty lingers.

When Russia suspended trading on the Moscow Interbank Currency Exchange last week, the offical rate was 7.9 rubles to the dollar. That jumped to 12.8 rubles on the street last weekend. On Monday, the official rate was announced at 9.3 rubles to the dollar. At the same time, black markets reminiscent of the Cold War era sprang up again, as young men skulked near exchanges, luring away business. While such trading no longer merits the death penalty, police are standing by to ensure that the "speculators," as they were called during Soviet days, aren't short-changing customers.

Some stores closed, more stayed open, and a few operated with limited goods. Last season's summer clothes lay piled up in the front of a boutique on the New Arbat, but the owners had removed all the new merchandise. Beside the store, 20 people stood in line to swap rubles for dollars at a currency exchange.

Some stores ignored the crisis altogether, leaving prices as they were. In a few groceries, however, clerks blocked off aisles and raised prices as fast as customers were buying products. Russians, especially those who remember Soviet-era scarcities, were stocking up on consumer goods, filling boxes with toiletries and food staples.

GUM, the century-old department store by Red Square, was mobbed with Russians. Appliance stores sold out of big-ticket items like washing machines. Jewelry stores were packed.

There was talk that casinos were jammed with people trying to get rid of their rubles. But past the thorough gun check and into the main room of the Metalitsa casino around 2 a.m. on Sunday, it was business as usual: the typical mix of businessmen, diplomats, and young New Russians—fairly busy, but far from frenzied.

"We can't really see a crisis here," said floor manager Cheddo Ristich. "The casino isn't a shop. We don't sell anything." Nevertheless, Ristich, a Serb, said he was surprised that more people weren't trying to dump their rubles.

"I was trying to get rid of my rubles yesterday," Ristich said, adding that he is holding off paying his bills. "My phone bill of $200 will now be $130."

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