MOSCOW -- This weekend, 54 tons of butter is defrosting in Moscow stores, part of the first large shipments of humanitarian aid arriving in this impoverished nation.
The fate of that butter will be closely watched the world over by governments and relief organizations that are trying to assess both the depth of the destitution here and the difficulty of getting help to those who need it most.
As the Commonwealth of Independent States struggles to emerge from the chaos of the former Soviet Union, politicians and humanitarians alike are trying to figure out how much aid is needed. They have two goals: to keep people from going hungry and to provide some measure of social stability during the wrenching changes from a command economy to a market economy.
Those objectives took on even more urgency in the last few days as two students were reported shot to death and 70 people wounded during food price protests in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent.
The aid issue will be examined at a conference to be held in Washington Wednesday and Thursday and attended by representatives of 50 governments. The United States is hoping that the same sort of broad coalition effort that drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait a year ago will now come together to help the former Soviet republics through shortages and distribution nightmares.
The butter is part of a $240 million food donation from the European Community that began arriving in Russia more than a week ago. The EC is sending 81,000 tons of meat, 28,000 tons of milk powder, 22,000 tons of butter, 10,000 tons of vegetable oil and 3,000 tons of baby food.
About $6 million of that aid is going directly to needy people through non-governmental organizations, according to Catherine Magnant, an EC spokeswoman.
But most of it -- like the butter -- is being auctioned or sold to stores.
"We want to get food in the stores," Ms. Magnant said, "and encourage the new market economy."
With the help of EC experts, Russians are expected to learn the techniques of wholesaling and retailing by buying and selling the donated food. The proceeds from the sales, Ms. Magnant said, will be used to establish a social protection fund. Money from the fund will be given directly to the poorest -- and those who are better off will find more to buy in the stores.
The EC agreed that the local governments of Moscow and St. Petersburg would handle the auctions and then waited for over a week, expecting they would occur quickly. By Friday, it seemed as if they would finally begin tomorrow or Tuesday -- but no one was sure.
Finally, the EC arranged the sale of the butter to 20 shops in Moscow, agreeing on a price of 56 rubles for a kilogram (2.2 pounds). The price was half way between the old state price and the free market prices.
Twenty-five percent of the price will go to profits for the warehouses where the butter was kept and for the shops that sell it. The rest will go into the social protection fund, Ms. Magnant said.
And, as soon as the huge frozen chunks defrost enough to be cut up into kilograms, she said, they will be offered to customers.
Amid widespread world suspicion that aid to Russia will be pilfered or wasted, what happens to the EC butter and other food could heavily in
fluence future decisions about aid.
Moscow has already infuriated the British on the subject. Britain sent 118 tons of beef here earlier this month, and city health officials rejected it because they said they couldn't be sure the animals had not had "mad cow" disease, a brain disease that has afflicted some British herds the past few years.
A Russian official later expressed regret over Moscow's action. The city of Murmansk accepted the meat, which was certified disease-free, but the angry British temporarily suspended delivery of 2,000 pounds more. "Don't send them another scrap," one London tabloid advised.
Some German organizations have charged that large amounts of aid from Germany have been stolen upon reaching Russia. Rupert Neudeck, director of an aid group called Cap Anamur, said packages were being stolen and sold at exorbitant prices on the black market.
"There are two greedy octopuses covering the whole of Russia )) with their tentacles and their huge stomachs, the old Soviet army and the new Mafia, which is made up of hundreds of thousands of parasitic party functionaries," he told a German newspaper.
An informal survey of several dozen Moscow kiosks -- where such goods might likely turn up -- revealed no obvious signs of stolen aid. And while no one doubts there are some thefts, no one has so far offered any proof that widespread thefts are occurring. But they remain a question mark.
John Ohta, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said that so far U.S. organizations have been happy with how their aid has been distributed.
In December, the U.S. Defense Department sent $400,000 worth of rations left over from the Persian Gulf war last year. The food was accompanied by American volunteers.