WASHINGTON -- President Bush, under pressure to offer some gesture of help when he meets with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev next week, may expand U.S. agricultural credits and technical assistance to the Soviet Union but won't announce a big aid package, officials said yesterday.
The two presidents will meet in Madrid next week before jointly opening a Middle East peace confer
ence. The Soviets cooperated in setting up the peace conference and in turn gained added stature in the Middle East by being part of it.
The meeting, the two presidents' first since August's failed coup against Mr. Gorbachev, comes as the Soviets brace for winter food shortages amid the continuing collapse of their economy and the decline of the central government's authority.
"If there's any overriding concern, it's that we not look like we're giving the back of our hand to Gorbachev," a senior administration official said.
Though no decision has been made, there is no administration consensus behind a major aid package and no indication from President Bush that he wants to proceed with
one, the official said.
With rising public concern about the U.S. economy and political pressures for more domestic spending and a middle-class tax break, the timing is wrong politically for a big Soviet aid package, the official said.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said options being considered include additional credits to enable the Soviets to buy food from the United States and technical assistance involving food markets and distribution systems.
Those options are in line with recommendations made to the president Tuesday by Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan, officials said.
"The president will be considering some more definitive recommenda
tion in these areas, and we'll have an announcement on that relatively soon," Mr. Fitzwater said. He did not say whether it would come before the Madrid meeting.
The United States already has provided $2.5 billion in agricultural credits during the last fiscal year, despite misgivings about the Soviets' ability to repay their debts. U.S. officials repeatedly have spoken of providing low-cost technical assistance.
The United States, prodded by Germany and other European countries and members of Congress, has not ruled out more substantial aid in the future. But Washington wants clear indications that the Soviet Union and its republics are taking strong steps toward market reforms.