Ruble′s freefall leaves Russians bewildered | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 18.12.2014
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Ruble's freefall leaves Russians bewildered

The ruble's plunge in value has prompted some Russians to rush into big-ticket purchases, while others despair as to how they will repay foreign currency loans - or even afford food. Fiona Clark reports from Moscow.

The cost of a haircut and color? 6,000 rubles. The look on your hairdressers face when you show her how far the ruble has dropped in one day? Priceless. Marina clutched her hand to her mouth and gasped as she stared at the currency converter on the mobile phone showing just how far the ruble had plunged on Tuesday. It read 72 rubles to the dollar, but that wasn't the lowest point it reached. At one stage it was down to 79, despite the government's attempt to stop the freefall by raising the Russian Central Bank's interest rate from 10.5 percent to 17 percent.

Since the sanctions started in July, Russians have been steadfastly saying "we've been through this before, we can do it again," but now, with the drop in oil prices driving the ruble lower, the mood is changing and they're realizing that this time the economic collapse will be different.

The economic crisis of the 1990s was bad - with hyperinflation and collapsing banks, but at that stage Russia still had the hangover of the Soviet Union's albeit artificially high employment levels and very little exposure to credit. Now, the tables have turned and the country has taken to borrowing likes ducks to water.

A screenshot of ruble exchange rates on December 16

Russians with mortgages in foreign currencies face especially tough times

In 2012 Russian's had borrowed $238 billion, according to the Central Bank. Personal loans for cars and mortgages are the most popular forms of credit, but apart from the banks there's a growing industry of 'easy credit' with advertisements plastered in public places offering cash within an hour, no documents required. But as interest rates on lending rise, it won't be easy to make repayments.

New Year's fears

"This is a nightmare. It's very different to last time, it's a disaster," says Marina, a 38-year-old hairdresser. She predicts a massive wave of unemployment.

"Thank God I'm a hairdresser," she says. "People always need their hair done, but I think many, many people will lose their jobs."

She was just about to buy a new car, "nothing flashy, a Ford Focus," but now with higher interest rates and a crashing ruble, she's thinking twice.

"I don't think I'll be able to do it. I won't be able to make the repayments," she says.

Over the past few weeks there has been a rush to buy new cars and big-ticket appliances like refrigerators as people fear a price hike in the New Year, but Marina knows that if she got into trouble and had to sell the car she'd only get about one third of what she'd paid for it, which wouldn't be enough to cover the value of the loan.

Mortgages in dollars and euros

Alexsei, a fire truck driver with a salary of around 65,000 rubles a month isn't too worried about his car repayments as he's on a fixed interest rate. He says he's one of the lucky ones because he didn't take his loan in dollars or euros, even though they were offered at a lower rate. "It's going to be really hard for people to repay those," he says.

A shop assistant sorts chees at Ashan supermarket in Moscow

Food prices have already risen, and it's expected they will rise far more

His main concern is food prices. The price of grechka, a buckwheat cereal and staple of the Russian diet, has doubled due to a poor harvest, and products like sugar, flour and bread have also gone up. Fortunately many supermarkets were well stocked so the prices of foreign products allowed in under the sanctions have only just started to rise, but it's believed they will skyrocket as new stock comes in.

Alexsei has a small child and his wife, Irina, is nearing the end of her paid maternity leave. "I was hoping that Irina would be able to stay at home for longer, but if the ruble keeps going down, and prices go up, she might have to go back to work sooner than we'd hoped to help support the family," he says.

Both his parents are pensioners. His father recently had an operation to remove part of his right lung due to lung cancer, and he worries that rising prices will have a serious impact on them, especially if the price of imported medicines goes up.

Nikolai, a retired foreign language professor rents out his Moscow flat and is building a dacha, or country house, not far from the city. He says the cost of building goods has risen substantially over the past couple of months. He tried to raise the rent on his apartment, but the tenants threatened to move out, so he changed his mind. "There are so many places on the market now, it wasn't worth taking the risk of having the place empty. Then I'd have nothing."

Alexander, a middle manager for a multinational wasn't so lucky when it came to his rent. "My salary has just been slashed by more than 50 percent, but my landlord who lives in America wanted to raise my rent and charge me in US dollars. I had to move my family to the countryside. It now takes me an hour and a half to drop my child at pre-school and get to work, and I'm doing that on three winter tires. The fourth is damaged and I can't afford to replace it."

A test for Putin

Just a few weeks ago talk back radio was full of people saying the crashing ruble was all part of a conspiracy between the West and Saudi Arabia aimed at bringing Russia to its knees. Now the tune is changing.

Putin at a press conference

Putin's popularity could take a beating

"It's the fault of Putin and the government. They're all corrupt and have bled this country dry," Nikolai says.

But while he may be feeling angry with the president, official figures say Putin's approval rating in November was 87.5 percent - higher than it was at the height of the Crimean annexation. It will be interesting to see if the next set of figures are as good, or if his popularity will start to follow the same trajectory as the ruble.

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