Originally created 08/29/98

Russian crisis hurts some Soviet republics



KIEV, Ukraine -- Three burly men in bright sportswear paused in front of a currency exchange office in central Kiev, stared glumly at the climbing rate for buying dollars and walked away.

The billboards outside exchange offices displaying constantly changing rates are perhaps the most visible sign of the shock waves Russia's financial crisis is sending across the former Soviet Union.

The impact is felt most strongly in Ukraine and Belarus, whose economies and trade are closely linked with their much larger neighbor.

"If not today, than tomorrow this crisis situation will affect Ukraine," Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma said Thursday.

Ukraine's hryvna currency has already fallen steadily against the U.S. dollar, and some food prices at outdoor markets have risen.

There are concerns that the flight of foreign investors, who now hold 18 percent of the state's Treasury bills, will increase. The cash-strapped government is offering domestic investors a bond debt restructuring plan and is said to be considering a similar plan for foreigners.

Ukraine also is worried that Russian goods -- which account for about 40 percent of the country's imports -- will become more expensive and that its exports to Russia -- one-third of the total -- will fall drastically.

In neighboring Belarus, the National Bank's press service said a number of small banks that have invested in Russian bonds might collapse. The crisis is even more painful there since authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has signed a treaty with Russia that binds their economies.

The Russian crisis has been pushing the Belarusian ruble down by 1,000 to the dollar a day. The Belarusian ruble's official rate is 49,000 to the dollar, but it's trading at 110,000 at the interbank currency exchange, not fully controlled by the government.

And Belarus' financial experts like Alexander Potupa, vice chairman of the Entrepreneurs' Union, say the nation is a step away from a full-blown crisis. He points out that Russia accounts for two-thirds of Belarus' foreign trade.

Unlike Belarus and Ukraine, the crisis has had little effect so far on the Caucasus nations of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, whose economic ties with Russia have been declining in recent years.

In Georgia, the Russian ruble dropped from 21 lari per 100 rubles to 15. The lari-dollar rate has stayed relatively stable, observers said.

"The situation in Russia has not negatively affected the situation in Georgia and the lari rate," said Soso Phakadze of the National Bank.

In oil-rich Azerbaijan, the local manat currency has stabilized against the U.S. dollar after gaining steadily for months, from 4,500 manat to the dollar to 3,900.

Russia's financial crisis also appeared to have little effect on Armenia, where officials said business was proceeding as usual with Moscow, Yerevan's No. 1 trade partner.

The financial collapse in Russia also has had minimal impact on the Central Asian republics, although it has caused some worries of longer-range problems.

"What we expect is a lack of general confidence in emerging markets and in investing in CIS countries," Madina Dushimova, director of research at Kazkommerts Securities, said, referring to the Commonwealth of Independent States, the former Soviet republics.