This past week, 47 nations met in Washington to coordinate relief efforts for the states of the former Soviet Union. The urgency of this task has been continually reinforced by daily reports of growing hardship in all parts of the Soviet successor states. The world is reacting to the signs of extensive personal suffering -- and to the ominous indications of potential political and social instability.
Yet it is surprising that the world's leaders waited so long to respond to the crisis. Even before the failure of the hard-line coup in August, there was credible evidence that this would be a dangerous winter. After the coup, it became even more apparent that the democratic forces would need economic assistance to help stabilize conditions made chaotic by the collapse of the Communist structure.
Even now, what is being done is insufficient, and what is being proposed is both inadequate and vague. The American emergency food airlift will not begin until Feb. 10. The Bush administration's proposal of $645 million in aid must still be approved by Congress. Even if approved, the aid will neither meet immediate needs nor provide for a long-term recovery. There should be a comprehensive program combining immediate relief and an aid plan to assure the transition to a market economy:
* We must immediately accelerate and expand emergency medical and food shipments.
* We should initiate a program enabling small American businesses to operate in the former Soviet states.
* We should expand the farm volunteer program to all sectors of the economy so that American managers can provide their expertise to new free-market business projects.
* This recovery program should be applied to the Baltic states as well as the 12 members of the Commonwealth of Independent States -- it should include all 15 of the former Soviet republics.
The Baltic states -- Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- are in urgent need of outside assistance to help them recover from the devastation caused by 50 years of Soviet control. The resignation this past week of the Estonian government of Edgar Savissar because of the economic crisis is an example of the dangers facing this region. I have just returned from a two-week trip to Latvia, where I saw the immense rebuilding task that lies ahead.
It was evident that it is in the world's interest to help both the Baltics and their former Soviet neighbors. The improvement of economic conditions in Russia and the achievement of political stability in Moscow will greatly help the Baltic governments get their economic houses in order. In turn, the Baltic recovery would help the larger, more cumbersome Russian economy to modernize.
The Baltic recovery program should concentrate first on urgent relief efforts. The most pressing immediate need is medicine and medical supplies. Aspirin, antibiotics, sterile bandages and disposable syringes are virtually unobtainable. Rural hospitals in Latvia are on the verge of being closed for the lack of even the most ordinary supplies.
The second-greatest problem is finding food and vitamins for the elderly, young children and the very poor. People in these categories have barely enough to eat; their diets are sorely lacking in basic nutrients. A few private foreign charities are struggling to help, but their effort falls short of the need.
The third urgent problem in the Baltics is the petroleum crisis. Diesel fuel and gasoline are so scarce that not only are planes grounded, but buses and trucks are unable to operate in many areas. Public transportation is disrupted, and the transport of essential goods is threatened. The fuel crisis could bring economic activity to a halt. The current chaotic conditions make Russia an unreliable source of energy. While higher fuel prices in the Baltics are inevitable, exorbitant costs or the total lack of fuel would create havoc.
The emergency relief program for the Baltic states should be followed -- as soon as possible -- by a comprehensive program to facilitate a market economy. Delay will only add to instability in the region.
The program should begin by emphasizing the creation of a convertible currency. The Baltic governments need financial assistance to introduce and stabilize their own currencies. Continued reliance on the ruble is not only destabilizing; it is financial suicide.
Next, the program should make it possible for private farmers to get farm machinery. Tractors, plows and harvesters are now unavailable. Even horses are expensive and scarce.
Other parts of a plan to create a market economy should include managerial assistance in establishing private businesses, technical assistance in converting factories to new production, and professional assistance in creating an effective local and national law-enforcement system.
The coordinated world effort for the 12 Commonwealth states is crucial, but so is a program for the Baltics. The Baltic states will be able to reorganize their economies far more quickly than will Russia and Ukraine. The faster they are able to recover, the faster they can help the rebuilding of the Russian economy.
Leonard Latkovski, professor of history at Hood College, just returned from a trip to Latvia.