Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has called on the leading industrial democracies and major international lenders to subsidize his reform program. Although Mr. Gorbachev has not indicated how much aid would be required, prominent Soviet economists have cited figures of up to $250 billion over the next five years.
The notion of providing generous assistance is gaining support, despite the West's own problems, because of the threat of violent instability if the Soviet economy continues to decline. Even President Bush, after an initially cool response, said that he was thinking more favorably about aid.
He should think again.
There is no reason to believe that Western economic assistance would be put to good use. Time and again, Mr. Gorbachev has failed to commit himself to the comprehensive and painful economic reforms that are so desperately needed. He has repeatedly backed away from genuine market reform in favor of retaining political control, as when he abandoned the so-called "500-day plan" of radical economic measures last fall.
There is no sign that anything has truly changed, even though Soviet officials have recently tried to create the impression of a new willingness to undertake bold steps.
The lack of a genuine commitment to free-market reform in Moscow is reminiscent of the official mood in Poland before the Communist government collapsed. The Polish economy in the late 1980s seemed just as hopeless as the Soviet economy now does. All of the measures enacted by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski failed because they were designed to modify, not replace, the state-controlled economy.
Not until late in the summer of 1989, when a non-Communist government led by Solidarity came to power, did the prospects for the Polish economy fundamentally change. The new government enjoyed popular legitimacy and broad support for radical free-market reforms. It enacted a comprehensive program January, 1990 and almost immediately achieved positive results.
To be sure, Poland has serious economic problems that will persist for years. But the remarkable progress since 1989 is a telling sign of what can be accomplished when a government genuinely commits itself to drastic, wrenching reforms. Poland's economy, which seemed on the verge of collapse two years ago, is now moving toward prosperity.
The decisive factor in this turnabout was the political change that brought to power leaders who enjoyed popular support and who were determined to abandon the Communist political system and economy. The new government did not come begging for vast amounts of aid before enacting its radical program.
That is why it is so peculiar to listen to Soviet leaders assure the West that economic reform will succeed in the Soviet Union only if the West subsidizes it. The success of economic reform in the Soviet Union will depend exclusively on whether the Soviet government is willing to implement measures that will permit Western assistance to be used effectively.
Western supporters of large-scale aid to the Soviet Union -- most of whom have no claim to expertise about Soviet politics or the Soviet economy -- respond that in providing subsidies, Western governments will gain greater leverage over the course of Soviet reform. Some even claim that the West can gain a decisive say by offering periodic assistance in return for specific measures enacted by the Soviet government.
But the notion that the current Soviet leadership will become so dependent on the West and so pliant to Western demands is naive.
The head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, has frequently alleged that Western investment is designed to subvert the Soviet Union. The prime minister, Valentin Pavlov, has claimed that Western businesses and banks are seeking to take over the Soviet economy. Mr. Gorbachev himself has warned that a more open investment climate must not lead to the "exploitation" of Soviet economic assets.
Can we really believe that these men are about to place their country's economic destiny in Western hands?
Of course, some aid proponents have argued that the funds would be deferred until the Communist government steps down and nationwide elections are held. Fine. But why bring up the question of aid now, when there is no evidence at all that Mr. Gorbachev intends to step down or stand for popular election, which he would almost certainly lose?
Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. Kryuchkov, Mr. Pavlov and other Soviet leaders are not going to acquiesce in their own political demise simply because Western governments (or Western academics) want them to. Until the Soviet Union undergoes the same kind of fundamental political change that Poland did in 1989, Western aid will merely be squandered.
Mark Kramer is a research fellow at the Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University and a fellow of Harvard University's Russian Research Center. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.