Answering the call for help

November 26, 1991|By Newsday

LISTEN TO what Eduard A. Shevardnadze has to say. Almost a year ago he warned of the danger of a return to dictatorship in the Soviet Union. Now he is back as foreign minister, and he says that the danger of dictatorship is greater than ever.

The euphoria of the post-coup weeks has long passed. Depression is spreading in the former Soviet Union. Returning travelers report an overwhelming sense of gloom, a pervasive despair. The economy spirals downward and there is widespread fear of hunger. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev pleads for help from the West, while Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin issues decree after decree, trying to decommunize the republic's economy but sounding more like a czar than a democrat. The analogy is Weimar Germany: a defeated nation falling into chaos with evil spirits in the wings.

The West cannot stand by and allow the first seeds of democracy in Russia's long history to die. But where is President Bush? Where are the Europeans and the Japanese? The first step must be to make the people of the former union believe that the rest of the world cares about their plight.

In the short term, everything possible must be done to prevent starvation this winter. Bread lines are the stuff of revolutions. But a longer-term, massive help program must also be organized. Financial aid is a key part of this effort, but there is also need to help educate the people on how democracy works, how to develop a better distribution system, banking, legal and parliamentary systems.

The U.S. offered $1.5 billion in food credits last week and the Western industrial nations agreed to postpone Soviet debt payments of $3.6 billion for a year. That may not be enough. The reality is that helping prevent a complete breakdown there is in this nation's self-interest. As Shevardnadze said, the bad guys are still waiting for the right moment, ready to stamp out democracy and capitalism and go back to the old ways. Ultimately, the task must be for the people of the former union -- but they are calling for help and the call should be answered.

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