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Page last updated at 12:29 GMT, Thursday, 16 October 2008 13:29 UK

Moscow Diary: The spectre of 'default'

The global financial crisis brings back bitter memories of the 1998 Russian default, but most Muscovites believe the country is better prepared to weather the storm, the BBC's James Rodgers says. His diary is published fortnightly.

DOOMSAYER

She had tears in her eyes. She stifled a sob as she spoke.

People queue to buy sugar in a Moscow shop with almost empty shelves. Photo: September 1998
Many goods vanished from the shelves virtually overnight in 1998

"That's it. There's a default. There's going to be a full devaluation of the rouble," she said.

I was waiting at a bus stop. The distressed woman had come up and made her announcement to the queue.

I could not believe what I was hearing.

"Default" - the English word has passed into Russian - brings back very unpleasant memories here.

It refers to the time in 1998 when Russia failed to make the required repayments on its foreign loans. The rouble dropped in value so dramatically that many imported goods all but vanished from the shelves overnight.

Exporters to Russia were worried whether the newly weakened currency would be worth enough to pay for the goods they were sending. There was a run on the banks. Millions lost their savings.

Now, while the world's shareholders looked on in dismay at falling financial markets, this woman was convinced that some of the toughest times in recent Russian history were about to return.

'OIL CUSHION'

Of course, Russia's financial position is vastly different now from what it was a decade ago.

Modern buildings are reflected in a traffic safety mirror in Moscow. Photo: October 2008
Moscow has changed dramatically in the last decade

The economic growth in between has been so rapid that parts of Moscow and other cities are barely even recognisable. They have been transformed by the construction and traffic congestion of a building and car-buying boom.

There may now be a question mark over how rapidly that will continue.

Russia's stock markets have plunged more dramatically than most. It was only in May this year that they closed at all-time record highs.

But today the government has billions in the bank - very different from the penury of the immediate post-Soviet period. There is a big cushion of oil and gas revenues before we reach that point again.

The bus stop where this dramatic announcement was made was at an out of town shopping centre. My trip there shows how much has changed.

The shopping centre did not even exist then. I went on a Monday morning. I took a day off specially to go because at weekends the shops there can be uncomfortably crowded.

I had chosen to travel most of the way by metro and take the bus only for the last stage of the journey. Moscow's growing multitude of motorists makes traffic slow to a crawl - even on Mondays after rush hour.

I checked the headlines on my mobile phone. Nothing on any of the Russian or international news sites suggested that my fellow passenger was right.

What she had shown, though, was how the global financial crisis looks different from Russia.

The phrase "financial crisis" does not lead Russians to look up the depression of the 1930s in the history book. It means 1998: something much more recent, and real.

Even as some Russians have got richer and richer, allowing themselves luxuries they could once never have dreamed of, there is still a feeling here that it might just be too good to be true.

'GRAB NOW' CULTURE

Communism did not create a workers' paradise. And Russia's first taste of Western-style freedom and democracy, in the 1990s, was for many a bitter one. It remains so to this day.

A trader in Moscow. Photo: October 2008
Stocks on Russian markets have plummeted in recent weeks

So Russians find it hard to believe that things are really as good as they seem.

Russian readers might disagree, but, to me as an outsider in this country, it seems that the consumer boom here has partly been driven by a lack of faith in the future.

If you have got the money, or can get credit, then buy that holiday/car/mobile phone right now. You might not have the chance again.

Nobody at the bus stop paid much attention to the doomsayer. Most people understand very well that Russia's financial situation is not what it was 10 years ago.

But some did shift a little uneasily, as if inwardly wondering whether there was any chance she was right.


Your comments:

I have little sense that the financial crisis is impacting ordinary lives here. People go to work, go home, feed their families, and continue with their everyday lives. The stock market crash is only impacting the rich; ordinary citizens do not feel the impact. However, inflation is still high, and banks are less lenient to give out credit as they were few years ago. In essence, the situation resembles what it is all over the world: tragic monetary loss for the few, impact for some, and indifference to most.
Lev Bornovalov, Nizhniy Novgorod, Russia

I agree with Lev. The question is whether we should buy the shares of companies like Gazprom and Sberbank now, when the price is three times lower than one year ago. The gold is also cheaper than before. Should we buy now or wait until the election in the US?
Denis, Moscow

The 'grab now' label for Russia is a bit extreme, but not too far off. In countries where financial institutions (including the currency itself) have more credibility, economic hard times result in people saving more. In Russia, however, economic hard times result in people spending more. In good times they splurge on a holiday/car/mobile phone, while in bad times they spend their money on home repairs or appliances, or they stock up on food and other goods.
Elizabeth, Moscow, Russia

The US and the EU may have just saved the world markets from collapse, but a worldwide inflation of 10 to 15% is coming, have no doubt about it. The trillions of dollars, Euros and Pounds that have been and will be now printed by the central banks will slowly creep into the world economies and will thus delude the puchasing power of our monies. We are up for a very expensive pay-back - just wait.
Paul, Los Angeles, USA

Well marked by Mr Rogers on lack of confidence in the future in Russia. It has always been so, since the times of the Tzars probably. So the financial crisis doesn't really change anything. Russia has always been the field for social and economic experiments by its own, usually incompetent government. The people are used to the need to look for oneself.
Andrew Janovski, Togliatti, Russia

There is hardly any exaggeration in the article I've read. The saddest thing is that it's all true. People are scared by all those rumours about "new default" (not everyone screams on a bus stop, but still one can smell it in the air) and banks pour oil on flames by restraining their loan policies. People are scared even knowing that the situation is different and maybe now the country has money and other resourses but it's too difficult to surpass the "historic memory" of when they suffered.
Almadi, Russia, Yekaterinburg

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