Russia Reels Out More Red Tape to Protect Ruble

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They come in a dozen languages, provide job security for thousands of customs agents, delay most outgoing flights and end up in the trash at the end of each day: Anyone who has ever traveled into or out of Russia knows the confusion and frustration of the currency declarations demanded at all international airports and border crossings.

What most do not know is how little relevance the declarations have in preventing capital flight or in tracking the circulation here of the U.S. dollar, the ostensible reasons for their existence.

By all official admissions, the Soviet-era practice of requiring those entering or leaving Russia to declare the amount of hard currency they are carrying has become an ineffectual instrument for protecting the ruble in an economy now flush with cash machines, foreign bank branches and tens of thousands of currency-exchange services where no questions are asked.

So as of this month, the toothless ritual of declarations that long stood alone as a shield against the dollar has been joined by a sheaf of new currency controls that government officials and economists concede are probably likewise unequal to the task.

Fresh red tape now entangles most bank withdrawals of dollars, requiring the client to detail later how the money was spent outside the country. There are also new edicts, effective Friday, prohibiting the use of U.S. currency for wages, sales transactions, bank transfers or denomination of prices on payment invoices or goods on store shelves.

By restricting the dollar's role in everyday transactions and demanding detailed accounting of dollars obtained here for spending abroad, a "hassle factor" is added that economic strategists hope will reduce dependence on the foreign tender.

"In our country, we are not talking about invasion by a foreign currency but the thorough dollarization of the economy," said Irina Yasina, spokeswoman for Russia's Central Bank. "We are financing and supporting the U.S. economy and giving the U.S. dollar an unprecedented opportunity to grow and expand."

Russian citizens have $4 billion in dollar deposits in banks in this country, the Central Bank has reported, and U.S. Treasury officials estimate that between $20 billion and $50 billion more is stashed in Russian homes in mattresses and cookie jars.

Pyramid investment schemes, bank failures and clumsy currency reforms in the early 1990s robbed millions of their life's savings and have made Russians wary of their financial institutions even as the economy steadily stabilized over the past two years.

"People keep about 90% of their savings in hard currency," most of it in homes or offshore bank accounts, said economist Larissa Piyasheva, a former chief economic strategist for the city of Moscow.

The Russian reluctance to trust banks wreaks havoc with the ruble money supply, contributing to the government's myriad financial problems that routinely delay state wages and pensions for months at a time, she said. Until the unfettered private currency-exchange booths operating across the country are closed, there will be no serious impediment to dollarization, Piyasheva said.

Any person, Russian or foreign, can exchange unlimited sums of rubles for dollars. Those with legal work permits can take up to $10,000 abroad on the strength of the exchange receipt. Amounts exceeding $10,000 must be approved by the Central Bank, but the process amounts to a rubber stamp on transfers to offshore Russian businesses that have been set up by the tens of thousands in places like Cyprus and the Cayman Islands.

"At some point, the president will have to appeal to the population's patriotism and encourage them to help get their motherland out of trouble, explaining that, unless this is done, millions of people won't be able to get their wages," Piyasheva said.

She described the new controls on currency transactions as a good psychological move to signal to the population that it is time to surrender stashed dollars for rubles if they want the economy to grow.

But shutting down the ubiquitous money traders or seeking to block capital exports would smack of the heavy-handed measures employed in the country during the first years of its transition to a market economy, and most analysts fear such moves would do more harm than good to public confidence in the ruble.

While the new currency controls and continued demand for the declarations have little effect on the growth of dollar capital or its outflow, they do serve to trip up the naive and unsuspecting.

A 25-year-old British graduate student who spent this summer in Moscow working as a translator without a Russian work permit had $1,800 confiscated when he left the country because he could not produce a legal paper trail. An American journalist who recently left Moscow was threatened with a strip-search when a customs agent discovered twice as much cash in her purse as the $300 on her incoming declaration because she had since visited an American Express cash machine.

Stricter enforcement of the declaration process has been implemented by the federal Customs Service to bolster the new restrictions. Fines and confiscations have been rising in recent weeks, reports Yelena Starozhilova, head of noncommercial currency operations for the federal Customs Committee.

"We intercept a sum that is not unsubstantial," she said, declining to be specific on grounds that such figures are still state secrets.

But she acknowledged that cash dollars carried by travelers is "small change" in comparison with the sums being transferred abroad electronically or through government-authorized export transactions.

The declarations are used only to tote up a daily sum of declared currency leaving the country and the amount being legally brought in, Starozhilova said. No recording of the declarations is made, and they are thrown out at the end of each workday.

All those entering Russia must fill out a declaration stating the amounts of hard currency and travelers checks they have in their possession. Amounts exceeding $500 must be inspected and registered by customs agents at the infamous "Red Channel," which can take as long as six hours to negotiate.

All travelers leaving Russia must proceed through the Red Channel and present their stamped incoming declaration as well as a fresh one denoting how much hard currency they are leaving with. The departing sum cannot exceed $500 or the amount brought in and registered upon arrival.

The declarations date to the Soviet era, when the only way a foreign visitor could obtain cash was to carry it in. Today, however, there are thousands of automatic teller machines dispensing both rubles and dollars, allowing anyone with a foreign bank account and a cash-machine card to legally obtain dollars.

"Technology has made it practically impossible to establish the origin of capital in today's world," said the Central Bank's Yasina, who dismisses the possibility of officially influencing the conduct of money abroad or the power of the dollar at home. "No obstacles or punitive or repressive measures will be able to stop the flight of capital from this country. Until a normal investment climate is created, they can keep coming up with severe currency export regulations, but they will just keep failing."

On the contrary, she said, only full liberalization of capital movement will instill confidence in the economy and encourage Russians with money to invest to keep it working in rubles in this country rather than smuggling it out in dollars to protect it from the whims of government control.

"You can oblige people to fill out currency declarations down to every $10 that enters or leaves the country, but it won't work," Yasina said. "Capital is like water--it will always find the holes."

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