RUSSIAN CASH DECREE STIRS FEARS OF CURRENCY "SHOCK'

RUSSIAN CASH DECREE STIRS FEARS OF CURRENCY "SHOCK'

A Russian decree requiring enterprises to deposit nearly all their cash in Russian banks has Western businesses, officials and economists wondering whether a sudden "shock" may be in store for the country's currency.

The decree by the Russian Supreme Soviet reportedly directs the nation's central bank to formulate "a procedure for cash operations" by Feb. 15.Until that plan is approved, businesses are required to deposit all their rubles above a negotiated quota in the banks, said the decree, published in Rossiyskaya Gazeta and aired on Moscow television Tuesday.

The directive, signed by Ruslan Kahsbulatov, chairman of the Supreme Soviet, orders enterprises to transact business on a "non-cash" basis through the banks, according to a puzzled U.S. official who noted that the Russians do not yet have a checking system.

Businesses are only allowed to keep cash on hand to pay employees and pensioners for three working days, the decree states.

U.S. analysts worry that the decree, if implemented, could bring Russia's struggling economy to a screeching halt.

Many also worry that the measure may be a prelude to massive currency reform, the issuance of new national notes or a confiscatory move as was perpetrated last year by former Soviet Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov.

Although it is unclear whether the decree is meant to apply to Western joint ventures, it could affect those that do business with Russian enterprises in rubles.

Maureen Kitts, communications director for McDonald's of Canada Ltd., said she had received no word of any problems at the Moscow McDonald's as a result of the decree, which was dated Jan. 13 but not made public until this week.

Nina Dimas, director Soviet affairs at KPMG Peat Marwick in New York, said the company's Moscow office has not reported any sudden shift on currency.

One possibility is that Mr. Kahsbulatov, who has recently fallen out with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin over the course of price reform, may have waited until the Russian leader was out of town earlier this week to surface his decree.

If so, it could be a signal for further discord over currency and banking.

Another possibility is that the "non-cash" transaction scheme may be a way of dealing with the sudden shift from last year's glut of rubles to a shortage caused by inflation rates reported to be as high as 400 percent. Reference is made in the decree to preparations to print 1,000-ruble notes.

Whatever the object of the "ruble-rationing" scheme, economists say there is little chance of success.

"The whole thing is most confusing," said Adam B. Ulam, director of Harvard University's Russian Research Center.

The attempt to keep commerce going between enterprises under such a plan would be "an absurd game without having cash reserves," Mr. Ulam said.

Analysts also scoff at the notion that Russian banks could act as clearing or settlement houses for exchange of goods at the producer level, especially in an economy where prices are rising every day.

They also doubt the move will help the government gain control of currency in advance of a reform.

"If anything, it will probably divert even more money out because people will try to dodge it," said Marshall I. Goldman, associate director of the Harvard center and an economics professor at Wellesley College.

Paul Surovell, editor of Interflo, a trade monitor of events in the former Soviet region, noted that Mr. Yeltsin's economic reforms have been under increasing attack in recent weeks by Mr. Kahsbulatov and other earlier allies.

The schisms raise the specter of a new "war of laws" within the Russian government to replace last year's conflict of contradictory decrees from Russia and the Soviet central government.