A QUIET BREAKFAST IN MOSCOW WITH THE IMF

A QUIET BREAKFAST IN MOSCOW WITH THE IMF

When Anatoly Chubais held his breakfast with the International Monetary Fund one morning last week, he kept the IMF men waiting for more than 30 minutes.

He then chose the largest of the chairs at the table, and placed John Odling-Smee, head of the fund's Russia section in Washington, on his right.He placed Martin Gilman, the IMF's Moscow representative, on his left.

He poured his own orange juice.

A large, pseudo-classical column protected the group's rear, and a potted palm guarded their front, in the main dining-room of the Metropol Hotel.

But this wasn't concealment enough to avoid the question: What exactly was the IMF doing meeting with a man who no longer holds an official position in the Russian government? A man whose post as chief executive of the national electric utility no longer entitles him to a vote at the Fuel and Energy Ministry, who lost his post as minister of finance for receiving a payoff disguised as a book royalty, and whose personal financial affairs are currently under investigation by the authorities in the United States and Europe?

A lip-reading meter recording the conversation detected hardly any mention at all of the word ''electricity'' - the one subject that the IMF, on a negotiating mission to Moscow last week, might have reason to discuss with Chubais, the chief executive of United Energy Systems.

So what of value could the International Monetary Fund possibly learn from Chubais? What could it learn, that is, that it has not already discovered through months of in-house investigations - combined with the audits of PriceWaterhouseCoopers - focusing on transactions with billions of dollars in Central Bank and Russian government funds?

The lip-reader records that the words ''Central Bank,'' ''audit,'' ''Putin,'' ''president,'' ''Washington'' and ''tranche'' were frequently used in the conversation.

The breakfast meeting was taking place ahead of Odling-Smee's scheduled session with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Perhaps the IMF men were thinking of rehearsing their script with Chubais, even though he had tried (and failed) to persuade President Boris Yeltsin not to appoint Putin to his current post.

Because Odling-Smee and Gilman have under-developed lips, and purse them when speaking - and because the palm fronds occasionally waved in front of Chubais's face - the lip-reader could not distinguish between the words ''finance'' and ''Fimaco.'' Whichever was used, the meter showed a large number of hits.

According to admissions by the IMF, it is the investigation of Russian transactions through Fimaco and other offshore fronts, operated by European banks under Central Bank control, that has delayed disbursement of a $640 million tranche (or installment) of IMF loan money for months.

At best, Odling-Smee and Gilman informed First Deputy Prime Minister Victor Khristenko the day before the Chubais breakfast, this money won't be forthcoming until late December.

What could the IMF have wanted to learn from Chubais to help settle when or whether the money will be paid?

Chubais headed Yeltsin's election campaign in June 1996, when, according to audit evidence, someone ordered the Central Bank to sell government securities worth almost $1.2 billion, generating an undisclosed amount of cash for an undisclosed beneficiary.

The transaction, which was not recorded by Fimaco, took place on June 28, 1996, days before the run-off vote between Yeltsin and the Communist Party candidate, Gennady Zyuganov.

Just as significantly, it occurred a week after Chubais's aides were caught removing a large box of dollars from the White House. That triggered a clash between Chubais and Yeltsin's security chief, Alexander Korzhakov.

Chubais prevailed on Yeltsin to sack Korzhakov, along with a first deputy prime minister and the head of the Federal Security Service. A few days later, after Yeltsin had won the election, Chubais became chief of the presidential staff.

He was in that position when the Central Bank quietly repurchased the billion-dollar lot of securities and buried the deal - or so it thought.

Chubais has admitted nothing about his role in arranging IMF advances, as well as German cash advances, to the government during that election campaign. He hasn't disclosed what he knows about the weeks of feverish dollar exports between the payment of the July 1998 IMF loan tranche and the ruble crash of Aug. 17, 1998.

However, as the Kremlin's campaign financier and the most powerful of the ministers to control the Russian treasury, Chubais is plainly a prime suspect - the man the IMF has every reason to avoid right now.

He is the man the IMF has reason to avoid, that is, if Odling-Smee and Gilman are serious about safeguarding the remainder of their loan to Russia today.