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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's fur industry is awash with chat about the crisis -- the crisis of another mild winter cutting demand for the coats considered part of its heritage.
This year total fur sales in Russia -- mainly coats -- will halve to around $2.5 billion and 2009 will remain tough, Sergei Stolbov, head of the Russian Fur Union, said.
"It's a complex situation for the fur business because as well as the financial crisis we also have to deal with worsening weather conditions," he said during an interview in his windowless office in central Moscow.
Russia has been hit badly by a global economic crisis and many bankers believe a 10-year boom that drove soaring consumption is about to stall.
But for the fur industry, milder winters are the problem.
Moscow temperatures often have hovered above 5 degrees Centigrade (41 Fahrenheit) in the first 10 days of December compared to a historical average of about minus 5 degrees, though in Siberia freezing temperatures are still the norm.
"When people are not cold they don't need a fur coat," Stolbov said. Now that spare cash is tight and the winter mild, fur coats have dropped off people's shopping lists.
Temperatures have risen globally, a change some scientists blame on greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.
At a popular market in the suburbs of Moscow, Tatiana Kolyeskina -- dressed in an ankle-length mink fur coat -- cast a hand along dozens of furs hanging on the sides of her stall.
The fox and mink coats ranged from 25,000 roubles ($895) to 60,000 roubles and sales were down.
"This is the worst I've seen it in 15 years of working here," she said.
Stray dogs lolled on the damp muddy grass skirting the market. They ignored the shoppers who strolled along concrete walkways wearing leather coats and dark overcoats.
"The crisis is bad, but these winters are dreadful," Kolyeskina said.
Images of Muscovites wrapped in fur and hurrying through snowy streets with their breath freezing in the air have been increasingly rare in the last three years.
In his office Stolbov of the Russian Fur Union frowned and said the combination of a warm winter and the economic crisis meant the situation was worse than the 1998 crisis, when Russia defaulted on domestic debt and allowed the rouble to devalue.
"There was a crisis in 1998, but that was a financial crisis. There was a cold winter then and demand for fur coats stayed high," he said.
Despite Western consumers ditching fur for ethical reasons, Russians still consider fur a stylish status symbol. Alongside China, Russia is the biggest fur market in the world.
The industry employs around 200,000 people in Russia, Stolbov said, although most furs now are imported.
Outside Stolbov's office, a light drizzle fell and cars splashed through dirty puddles in the uneven road. There was barely a fur coat in sight.
"Who asked Putin when will there be snow?" Stolbov said rhetorically, referring to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's three hour phone-in session with the Russian public at the start of December.
"That person must have worked for the fur industry."
Editing by Michael Roddy