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ARE EX-COMMUNISTS IN CENTRAL BANK TRYING TO SUBVERT ECONOMIC REFORM?

Something very strange, perhaps sinister, is taking place in Russia that threatens President Boris Yeltsin's efforts at political and economic reform.

Yeltsin's acting premier and economic guru, Yegor Gaidar, is struggling to keep money tight, to stabilize the ruble and to meet the International Monetary Fund's guidelines for massive loans to save Russia from collapse.Meanwhile, the acting head of the Russian Central Bank, Viktor Gerashchenko, is pouring out credits to failing state-owned industries and farms and to former Soviet republics.

Deliberately or not, he is fueling runaway inflation.

In Russia's bizarre present setup, the central bank is controlled not by the government but by parliament.

And that body, elected in 1990 before the Soviet Union and the Communist Party fell apart, is heavy with communist true believers and anti-reformers.

The Russian Central Bank's former boss, Georgi Matyukhin, a tight-money man, quit after months of vicious attacks by parliament's "former" communists. In July, he was replaced by Gerashchenko, and matters quickly went from bad to worse.

Gerashchenko needed a job. He had been governor of the Soviet Central Bank, a position that disappeared with the old union. He brought to Russia's bank his lifelong faith in state control and central planning.

The bank began to issue credit to republics that use the ruble - Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Georgia and others - amounting to 10 percent of Russia's gross national product.

That huge sum will be consumed in the republics and is unlikely to be repaid.

Driven by the bank's irresponsible monetary policy, inflation heated up, from 7.5 percent in July to more than 10 percent in August. It is foreseen at 30 percent in September and 50 percent in October.

Anders Aslund, a Swedish economist who advises the Russian government, says this is hyperinflation. "And once you hit hyperinflation, it destroys most economic institutions."

As the bank cheerfully hemorrhaged money, the ruble plunged from 135 to the dollar in mid-July to 203 to the dollar in mid-September. The feeble ruble will do great damage by making needed imports dearer and driving up prices even more.

At a news conference, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Gaidar, Sergei Vasil-yev, came close to accusing the bank of sabotaging the attempt to build a market economy.

"I don't know their personal motivations," Vasilyev said, "but in practice the officials of the central bank are working to discredit the government and the entire course of the reforms."

Yeltsin took almost the same line. "Hyperinflation is becoming a serious threat to the reforms in the near future," he said. "Supporters of cheap credits and unrealistic social programs are pushing us into this abyss."

At coming parliamentary sessions, Yeltsin will try to change the bank's status. He wants it to answer to the government or to become independent of politicians, as America's Federal Reserve theoretically is.

To many, control of the money supply seems an arcane question. But to Yeltsin's reforms and Russia's fragile democracy, it is literally a life-or-death issue.

If Yeltsin's government can limit credits, gain foreign aid and privatize industry and farms, a democratic Russia has a chance, though it is no sure thing.

If inflation runs wild, the bad old boys - the communist command-givers and the KGB - will be back under some new name.

(B.J. Cutler is foreign affairs columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.)