A plea for the old USSR: Send help before it's too late

Angela Stent & Daniel Yergin

December 17, 1991|By Angela Stent & Daniel Yergin

AT PRINCETON University last Thursday, Secretary of State James Baker announced a new strategy to deal with the grave risks arising from the social and economic disintegration of the former Soviet Union. His speech recalled Secretary of State George Marshall's historic address at Harvard in 1947, launching the reconstruction of a devastated Western Europe.

But time is crucial, as it was in 1947. While an airlift of some essentials begins this week, the main planning -- the "coordination conference" -- is not to convene until mid-January. This delay is highly risky, given how close the former Soviet Union is to chaos. What Marshall said of Europe 44 years ago applies to the Soviet economy today: "The patient is sinking while the doctors deliberate."

Twentieth-century history is littered with "what ifs" -- catastrophes and evils that might have been avoided by prudent action. We may look back and realize that this was one of those junctures when a great opportunity slipped away. The West may demand reforms before aid, but the reformers may not survive long enough to get around to the reforms.

We must get food shipments moving on a sufficient scale, and take the program out of election-year politics. The Soviets need a "Strategic Food Initiative." This would work in the same way that the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve does: It insures that supplies are plentiful enough to counteract hoarding and panic buying. Once the hoarders learned of Western intentions to supply the Soviet Union with food, they would have no reason to hold on to supplies.

Food shipments by the West will further help defuse the crisis as Russia and other republics prepare to free prices and move to a market system. The main targets should include big cities, the Urals industrial region and hard-pressed Armenia. It is critical to feed the cities: That is where food is in shortest supply and where revolutions or counterrevolutions are most likely to begin. The likelihood of panics and upheavals increases day by day. The West can make a crucial difference, and we need the resulting influence to support the move to democracy and markets and help stabilize the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

The initiative should be coordinated by the Group of Seven, to avoid duplication and conflicts. The Japanese need to move beyond pledges of funds to actual expenditure. Results would be almost immediate if the European Community financed the shipment of Polish and Hungarian food surpluses to the Soviet Union.

The Bush administration should appoint an administrator for the Strategic Food Initiative with the skill and stature to cut through the many Gordian knots. At the same time, leading U.S. agricultural cities, like Des Moines and Omaha, should establish partner relationships with Soviet cities, engaging farm and business groups and spearheading deliveries. This would strengthen the people-to-people character of the Strategic Food Initiative and make it less political. The U.S. mayors could visit their Soviet counterparts as soon as possible.

The difficulty would come once the food was in the Soviet Union, where the distribution system has broken down. One channel for the initiative could be through local city leaders, who in turn could arrange use of empty stores. The proceeds from the sale of the food would be put in accounts to finance the privatization of state enterprises (on which the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development would help). There could also be direct delivery to the most vulnerable groups, old people and children. Inevitably, some food would be wasted or end up on the black market, but most supplies would get through.

To work, the Strategic Food Initiative needs leadership. The administration and Congress must together respond and develop a consensus that swift, comprehensive action is in the crucial interest of the U.S. in these first unsteady days after the death of the Soviet Union.

Angela Stent is professor of government at Georgetown University. Daniel Yergin, president of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, is author of "The Prize."

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