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Vouchers Giving Russians a Small Piece of the Action : Privatization: Certificates worth 10,000 rubles are distributed to buy shares of state property, or be sold.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Nina Y. Yerokhina, Thursday was an unprecedented day--she got a gift from the Russian government. The 79-year-old Muscovite, whose only child is dead and who must fend for herself on a tiny pension, was one of the first Russians to receive a freshly minted voucher entitling her to 10,000 rubles’ worth of state property.

“This is the first time in my long life that I am getting something free from my government,” marveled Yerokhina, who wobbled along on her cane after picking up her certificate at a savings bank.

“This is a very pleasant feeling, as if somebody up there in power really does care about us old people,” she said. “This voucher thing is my only chance to have my crumbling apartment repaired, so I can spend the remainder of my days in relative comfort.”

Taking what it hopes will be a giant leap toward creating a nation of capitalists, President Boris N. Yeltsin’s government launched a three-month, nationwide program Thursday to distribute an investment voucher to each and every one of Russia’s estimated 150 million people.

Bearers of the scraps of paper will be able to sell them to speculators for cash, as the stooped, bespectacled and careworn Yerokhina said she intends to do. Or they can use them until the end of 1993 to buy shares in one of more than 5,000 state-owned industries now being privatized.

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The latter is what the government hopes most Russians will do as it guides this economically shattered country from price reform into the next great phase of market-oriented change--the massive selling off of state holdings into private hands.

“Remember, we live in conditions of inflation,” Acting Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar stressed on television Wednesday, urging people to resist the urge to trade their vouchers--whose face value is now equivalent to about $32, or six times the average weekly wage--immediately for cash.

“The property represented by these privatization checks doesn’t depreciate,” Gaidar emphasized.

But the chance to quickly obtain money to parry Russia’s spiraling inflation may largely defeat the scheme, which is supposed to pay back the citizenry the equity it earned in three generations under Soviet economic planning, when wages were kept low by government edict and virtually all property was concentrated in the grip of the state.

One recent poll found that 80% of the residents of one Moscow neighborhood intend to unload their certificates fast for rubles. If that happens nationwide, ownership of much of industry could be concentrated in a small circle of speculators.

But some Muscovites who picked up the certificates after distribution began Thursday morning spoke of the novel joy of having some excess capital. The entire country, one Russian newspaper said, is obsessed with the question, “What to do with a voucher?”

“This is great, this is fantastic!” Akop G. Kirakosyan, 44, a cartoon director, blurted out, waving the voucher he picked up at a Moscow bank. “This is the first time we’ve become masters of our country!”

That proprietary spirit is what Yeltsin was banking on when he announced the voucher program last August as “a kind of ticket to the free-market economy for each of us.”

“We need millions of property owners, not a handful of millionaires,” Yeltsin declared.

But even ardent proponents of the voucher system admit that it has an entire range of shortcomings, while opponents on both the left and right have ferociously attacked it.

“The government has robbed the people with rocketing inflation and is now trying to tip them with a voucher worth as much as a pair of shoes, while the country is being sold off to domestic and foreign capitalists,” thundered The Day, a xenophobic, far-right newspaper.

Earlier this week, former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev called the program a “deception” that could give capitalism a bad name.

For their part, free-marketeers complain that the “voucherization” plan leaves far too many assets, including virtually the entire military-industrial complex and other “strategic” holdings, such as oil wells, in state hands.

Officials of the State Property Committee acknowledge that ground rules for the auctioning of enterprises, to begin Dec. 1, have not been completed, including key regulations on who is entitled to take part. Many enterprises have also failed to file their plan for issuing stock, as required by law.

And because of delays in voucher distribution, some factories will inevitably go under the hammer before many would-be buyers can get their certificate.

As of Thursday, only about 40 million of the documents bearing the image of the Russian Parliament had been printed and distributed nationwide, the Itar-Tass news agency said. In Moscow, a city of 9 million, only 1.7 million vouchers were delivered to 750 distribution centers, officials said.

What voucher-holders can buy may be less than many believe. Only 35% of the stock to be issued by state-run firms will be traded for vouchers. The remainder will be sold to the labor collective or cash-rich investors, or held by a federal property fund.

Sergei Loiko, a researcher in The Times’ Moscow Bureau, contributed to this story.


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