AMMAN - Syria has released new cash into circulation to finance its fiscal deficit, flirting with inflation after violence and sanctions wiped out revenues and led to a severe economic contraction, bankers in Damascus say.
Four Damascus-based bankers told Reuters that new banknotes printed in Russia were circulating in trial amounts in the capital and Aleppo, the first such step since a popular revolt against President Bashar Assad began in 2011.
The four bankers said the new notes were being used not just to replace worn out currency but to ensure that salaries and other government expenses were paid, a step economists say could increase inflation and worsen the economic crisis.
The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed at least 10,000 people in a crackdown, and the government says more than 2,600 members of its security forces have died.
The four bankers, along with one business leader in touch with officials, said the new money had been printed in Russia, although they were not able to give the name of the firm that printed it. Two of the bankers said they had spoken to officials recently returned from Moscow where the issue was discussed.
"(The Russians) sent sample new banknotes that were approved and the first order has been delivered. I understand some new banknotes have been injected into the market," said one of the bankers. All requested anonymity.
Two other senior bankers in Damascus said they had heard from officials that a first order of an undisclosed amount of new currency had arrived in Syria from Russia, although they were unable to confirm whether it had entered circulation.
Outgoing Finance Minister Mohammad al-Jleilati said last week that Syria had discussed printing banknotes with Russian officials during economic talks at the end of May in Moscow. He said such a deal was "almost done," without going into details.
However, the central bank later denied through state media that any new currency had been circulated.
Goznak, the state firm that operates Russia's mint and has exclusive rights to secure printing technology, regularly prints money for other countries. It declined to comment.
A 'last resort'
Russia is one of Syria's major political backers and a close trading and economic partner. There are no sanctions in place that would bar a Russian firm from printing money for Syria.
Syrian money was previously printed in Austria by Oesterreichische Banknoten- und Sicherheitsdruck GmbH, a subsidiary of the Austrian central bank. That order was suspended last year because of European Union sanctions, an Austrian central bank spokesman said.
One of the four bankers described the decision to use newly printed money from Russia to pay the deficit as a "last resort" after several months of consideration.
Syria's deficit has swollen because of declining government revenues and loss of oil exports hit by sanctions. The government is loathe to impose unpopular measures to fight the deficit, like cutting subsidies or raising taxes.
"The deficit is there and it is already increasing and increasing quickly. And to finance it they have decided to print currency," said the senior businessman, who is familiar with the subject and in touch with monetary officials.
Bankers say a priority has been to continue salary payments for over 2 million state employees among a workforce of 4.5 million in a country of more than 21 million people.
"You cannot allow the public sector to collapse," said one of the bankers. "People are getting their wages and there are no complaints if they are paid at the end of every month. If we reach a stage where they are not paid there will be a crisis."
Syria's $27 billion 2012 budget was the biggest in its history, taking many by surprise. Bankers say the spending surge was motivated by a desire to create more state jobs and maintain subsidies to help ward off wider discontent.
The private sector has suffered large scale layoffs, but workers in the public sector have kept their jobs and had steady wages despite a salary freeze.
Financing the spending has proven difficult. The central bank has exceeded borrowing limits from public banks, and private banks are reluctant to buy government bonds, one of the bankers said.
Inflation is already running at 30 percent, although the central bank considers it manageable.
Authorities have spent state funds on subsidies to keep the prices for household utilities and petrol unchanged, and have announced planned price controls on basic commodities. However, electricity prices for big industries have risen by 60 percent and the price of subsidized diesel fuel has also risen.
The authorities plan to inject only a small amount of new currency to prevent runaway inflation, said one of the bankers.
"But there is a limit to how much fresh money could be injected into the economy in such highly uncertain times. Reckless printing of money as a way of buying short term reprieve could be economic suicide," the banker added.