Soviet reformers inherit decrepit food-supply system ripe for change THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 27, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Democratic reform is great, but will it put food on the table?

Following the euphoria over political upheavals in the Soviet Union, the liberal economic managers appointed in the wake of last week's failed coup are facing that question, and the answer is discouraging.

Even before the coup, the old distribution system, inefficient and corrupt, was teetering. Now, the nation wants a market system, but it can't be built overnight.

"We cannot permit a breakdown in the supply of food and fuel to the population," President Mikhail S. Gorbachev told the Supreme Soviet yesterday.

But the food is ripening now, and getting it to the table won't be easy for the management committee led by Ivan Silayev, the Russian prime minister.

In one respect, the reaction to the coup will only aggravate the situation, since, as various republics split from the central government, moving food across jealously guarded borders could become nearly impossible.

L Signs of discontent were already widespread before the coup.

Civil disturbances rocked several small cities, for instance, over theabsence of sugar. Without sugar, foresighted people can't put up their summer berries.

In far eastern regions, armed gangs were out at night stealing cabbages, which are otherwise unavailable.

Sporadic bread lines -- even in summer -- cropped up from time to time.

And in the Siberian city of Chitai, mobs surrounded two railroad tank cars -- one filled with wine and the other with cooking oil -- and politely forced the owners, who were at the scene, to sell them the contents.

"What's going on with foodstuffs is outrageous," Anita Kabo, a shopper in Moscow, said yesterday as she came out of a nearly empty state produce store.

"These," she said, pointing back into the store, "are the fruits of many years."

But officials think they can stave off disaster.

As Vladimir N. Kiselev, deputy director of a state produce distributorship in Moscow, put it, "The system is still afloat, barely. If there is no flour, no meat, it's a catastrophe, sure. But without potatoes, now that's a major catastrophe."

In other words, there may not be salami, there may be bread lines, and the milk may run out, but somehow the potatoes will be there.

Moreover, people here have a legendary ability to manage, even when things are at their worst.

There's the Alla HD technique. She's retired and shops all day, every day. She looks all over the city for food she needs and often has to wait in line for hours to buy it.

Then there's Natasha Poluboyarova's approach. A doctor, she receives one order of groceries every week through the institute where she works. But her parents lease a plot of land near the Volga River, and they grow enough fruit and vegetables to see the whole extended family through the year.

Millions of others are doing the same. Eighteen million urban families have leased rural land this year to use for vegetable gardens.

In the plots surrounding some dachas -- the rough summer cottages that are so popular -- seemingly every square %o centimeter is devoted to potatoes, beets and other hardy staples. Millions of people put up all the home-grown fruits and vegetables for the winter.

But home gardens and improvisation can go only so far in feeding a nation. The overall forecast is not good.

To begin with, the government predicts a sharp decline in the harvest this year. Some crops could be down 50 percent to 60 percent from last year's.

Drought in the western Soviet Union and floods in the east and south have destroyed thousands of acres of crops. Already, production of meat, butter and grains is down from last year.

For the longer term, meanwhile, there is more grim news. Nationally, the demand for oil will outstrip production for the first time this year, as oil wells pump less and less. That means that the world's largest producer of oil is not only using up its resources, it is losing its principal means of obtaining hard currency.

And that means that farms will have a harder and harder time finding both fuel and the spare parts for machinery that oil exports once paid for.

But the breakdown of the distribution system is the chief headache, and that, too, is unlikely to change overnight.

A store doesn't simply buy the produce it needs. Regions have contractual obligations to supply other regions with food, which is then distributed by state agencies to stores. But even before the coup, those obligations were increasingly being ignored. And the republics are now jealously guarding their own production.

Byelorussia and Lithuania are refusing to send food to Leningrad, where gangs of homeless people have begun raiding family vegetable plots.

The Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, not only declared independence this week, it restricted the amount of food that individuals can take out of the republic.

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