The country that's stingy with its visas is about to issue Visa cards.
The Soviet Union and Visa International, the giant bank credit card marketing concern, have reached agreement to begin issuing the credit cards to Soviet citizens and to foreigners living in that country, Visa announced yesterday.
In addition, Visa and the Soviets are looking into the "possibility" of installing some automated teller machines to give cardholders access to rubles at all hours, Visa said.
But lest anyone think the deal represents a conversion of the Soviet Union to a U.S.-style debt-propelled consumer economy, Visa cautioned that there are some differences.
First, there won't be any bank. In the West, Visa cards are actually issued by banks, which set the terms and act as the lender when a cardholder runs up a balance. Visa here is traditionally a "revolving credit" card, meaning that the holder need make only a minimum payment each month while allowing the balance to ride the plastic in the form of a loan from the issuing bank.
In the Soviet deal, the Visa member will be a newly formed subsidiary of the Soviet tourist agency, Intourist, which will take the place of the bank and will be the card issuer.
But Intourist apparently isn't ready to plunge headlong into financial services. Its cards, according to a Visa spokesman, "are likely to be 30-day charge cards," which require cardholders to pay off their balances in full at the end of each month.
The spokesman said that eligibility standards would be set by the Intourist subsidiary, and he refused to speculate on the extent to which ordinary Soviet citizens would be allowed to obtain the cards and use them in domestic commerce.
However, Intourist "is a major player in financial markets" and "seems to be alive to the possibilities" associated with domestic consumer applications, he said.
For the moment, though, the cards seem meant primarily for Soviet citizens who travel abroad and for foreigners living in the Soviet Union.
Ordinary Visa cards -- and other Western cards as well -- are already accepted at some 500 places in the Soviet Union, mostly in major tourist areas, and Intourist "apparently is interested in expanding its merchant base," Visa said, noting that foreign tourists are an "increasingly important market" for the Soviets.
A spokesman for MasterCard hastened to point out that MasterCard is issued by the Bank of China in the Peoples Republic, and is the only credit card in China. The Bank of China is a member of Visa as well, but issues only the "Great Wall MasterCard," he said.
Visa replied that a Bank of China Visa card will be forthcoming shortly.