Americans Feeding Russians

December 14, 1990

President Bush's decision to approve $1 billion in federal loan guarantees to allow Moscow to buy food and other agricultural products is a timely gesture. But while it may strengthen Mikhail S. Gorbachev's hand at his hour of need, it will do little to cure his country's life-threatening crisis.

Soviet emergency needs are immense. After more than seven decades of communist mismanagement, the Soviet Union is an economic basket case, a veritable Upper Volta with rockets.

Just to get over the worst, Soviet officials estimate they require $11 billion in aid.

Baby food, medicine and cigarettes are only few of the items the Gorbachev administration wants. In the longer term, Kremlin officials say they need the following: 1.2 billion razors, 420 million disposable syringes, 32 million refrigerators, 355,000 washing machines, 1.5 million vacuum cleaners, 4.8 million television sets, 3.1 million radios, 21 million sewing machines and 930,000 bicycles.

Symptomatically, it is not the lack of food that has triggered the recent panic buying that left the shelves empty; it is the crumbling system's inability to collect, store and distribute last autumn's all-time record harvest. Similarly, it is not lack of oil that is causing shortages of fuel in the Soviet Union but the virtual collapse of work discipline and infrastructure, particularly transport.

Nations around the world are now organizing a massive effort to help the Gorbachev administration to survive the winter. Many countries in Europe fear that unless Soviets are aided at home, hordes of the hungry and discontented might forage into Finland, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, causing a calamity impossible to contain.

Not since the U.S. government's World War II lend-lease program and the private Russian War Relief collections has there been such a concentrated effort in the West to aid the Soviet Union. This time, Germany, Moscow's main trading partner, is in the lead. There is poignant symbolism in Berlin sending its unneeded Cold War food reserves to help the Soviet Union. After all, those reserves were created during and after the 1948-49 Soviet blockade of the city and are large enough to feed 10 million people for a month.

Yet these are stopgap measures. Foreign aid may temporarily overload the already shaky Soviet distribution capacity, but it will be woefully inadequate to cure the country's acute crisis.

Instead of Band-Aids, the Soviet Union needs a systemic overhaul that gives its citizens enough confidence to roll up their sleeves and get down to the awesome work of rebuilding on the ruins of economic centralism. Unless President Gorbachev is willing to scrap the whole communist system, the generous aid now flooding into the Soviet Union is not going to be enough to save him.

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