That Russian Winter

October 18, 1991

Soviet winter, a gloomy period of Arctic freezing, is just around the corner. And the country, disorganized after the fall of communism less than two months ago, is ill prepared. Food supplies are erratic, the haphazard distribution system is falling apart. As people grumble, politicians quarrel.

Just yesterday, Ukraine joined Moldavia and Georgia in deciding not to sign a key economic agreement that was supposed to bind 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics together in a loose common market. (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, having won their independence, had already opted out).

This is terribly bad news. It threatens to divide the former Soviet Union into hostile economic units with high tariff barriers and export restrictions that would greatly hamper the movement of goods, raw materials and food between various parts of the former Soviet empire. A splintering of the Soviet marketplace would have other dire consequences. Above all, it would discourage badly needed foreign aid and investment.

"I do not know if Ukraine will survive without Russia, but Russia will definitely survive without Ukraine," Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi declared bravely. But will it?

After much initial euphoria spawned by President Boris N. Yeltsin's leadership, Russia itself is undergoing a crisis of confidence. The problems created by the split-up of the Soviet Union have proven to be so overwhelming and difficult that they seem to have paralyzed Mr. Yeltsin. "We haven't seen any decisive steps in implementing resolute economic reform," complains Lev Ponomaryov, a leader of the big Democratic Russia faction in parliament.

The situation is no better in other former Soviet republics, which were so quick to declare independence after the failed August coup against President Mikhail S. Gorbachev but have achieved little since then. The chief Soviet representative to this week's meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Thailand acknowledged as much. "Our country is moving," he said. "I don't know if it is forward or to hell."

Western economic experts drew their own conclusions after witnessing public spats among members of the Soviet delegation.

The grace period for the democratic, non-Communist experiment that began after the August coup will be short. If the various parts of the former Soviet empire cannot get their houses into some basic order by spring, a disaster is likely. But even before then, the country has to survive through a winter which is rapidly arriving.

General Winter defeated Napoleon. General Winter crushed Hitler. This time, the wily old general may strike against the fledging democratic governments in many former Soviet republics.

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