Could Western billions bail out the beleaguered regime of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev?
"This is not Poland or Hungary, this is 300 million people," one skeptical Soviet economist said Monday, shaking his head at the daunting size of the task.
What will probably be a prominent topic at the Houston summit of industrialized democracies--Gorbachev's reported appeal to the West to give a boost to the reeling and shortage-plagued Soviet economy--evokes conflicting feelings among Soviet movers and shakers, with some even recommending against accepting cash aid.
"Economic help in the form of money to the Soviet Union is not needed," said Anatoly A. Sobchak, the progressive mayor of Leningrad. "If this money is put into the hands of government bureaucrats, it will not be used in the right way. . . . In no way should money be put into the hands of the bureaucrats."
Though many Kremlin officials spoke squeamishly about even the concept of "aid" from the West, there was little dispute about the dire straits that the country's economy has fallen into after five years of Gorbachev's perestroika reforms, defined by one current Moscow joke as "when you're finally allowed to open your mouth but there's nothing to put in it."
Panic buying recently caused salt and macaroni to disappear from Soviet stores. The Kremlin spent the equivalent of $500 million on food imports as shortages--in the words of Prime Minister Nikolai I. Ryzhkov--left the market "destitute" and the citizenry increasingly disgruntled.
The vastness of the rescue job needed and the relative modesty of the means under study are shown by simple arithmetic. West Germany is pushing for a Western aid package of more than $15 billion. Such "massive" aid would be only about $50 for each Soviet citizen.
Soviet officials who spoke to reporters during the Communist Party congress inside the Kremlin said they would accept help from the West--but only if no strings are attached.
"To dictate conditions to such a country as the Soviet Union, a great power, is embarrassing," said Georgy K. Shakhnazarov, an aide to Gorbachev. "We aren't taking orders."
Politburo member Yegor K. Ligachev, in charge of the poorly performing agricultural sector, objected vehemently to assistance if it is predicated on Western-style economic changes "such as the move toward a free-market economy or private property," concepts that the orthodox Marxist has consistently opposed.
But Eduard A. Shevardnadze, the foreign minister, seemed to be willing to offer guarantees that the Kremlin's reform course would continue, though he brushed off the U.S. demand for an end to the Soviet underwriting of Fidel Castro's Cuba as being a matter for negotiations with Havana alone.
Help from abroad, Shevardnadze said Monday, "will undoubtedly help perestroika , democratization and modernization in our society." He said donor nations would also benefit from increased commercial contacts.
Significantly, while chatting with journalists, Shevardnadze said he disliked the word pomoshch , or "aid," to describe what the West is considering. He referred instead to "credit, technical cooperation, personnel training, joint ventures and joint projects."
For many people of Shevardnadze's generation, who were told when young that their country would overtake the United States in general prosperity within their lifetimes, even the slightest suggestion that they might appear to be going to the West hat-in-hand must be galling.
"For 70 years, people were told that no cooperation was possible with foreigners, that every foreigner was a spy or an enemy," Leningrad Mayor Sobchak said.
According to White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, Gorbachev made a plea for help from the Group of Seven countries now meeting in Houston in a letter received by President Bush last week. But "Vremya," state-run television's main news program, told viewers Monday only that the letter mentioned a "widening of economic cooperation" and made aid sound like an idea thought up by the West.
Soviet officials interviewed gave varying wish lists for how to use Western help.
Pavel G. Bunich, the economist who reminded reporters in the Kremlin that his country is much bigger and more populous than Poland or Hungary, said what the Soviet Union really needs is technical and management training, rather than imports of consumer goods.
Shakhnazarov, who presumably was relaying Gorbachev's thinking, said Western technology is wanted for the rapid construction of small-scale businesses to manufacture consumer products and food, as well as help in carrying out market-style reforms in banking, finance and management.
The government official charged with finding a way out of the economic crisis, Deputy Prime Minister Leonid I. Abalkin, said the country needs to "immediately" buy consumer goods, develop food-processing plants and light industry and court foreign investment in industry.
He said credits from the West would buy the Kremlin time to implement its plan for the transition to a "regulated market," a proposal that touched off a near-panic when it was made public in May and officials disclosed that it would mean an average doubling of food prices.
"We're talking about credit to stabilize conditions; that's what we need," Abalkin said.
Whatever the Western leaders' decisions turn out to be, the magnitude of the steps needed to revitalize the Soviet economy were sketched by Sobchak.
Farming and food-processing sectors in the Soviet Union now function so poorly that in the Leningrad region, a staggering 50% to 75% of the crops harvested never make it to market, rotting or disappearing somewhere in the food chain.
The Soviet Union's second-largest city, where more than 4 million people live, doesn't have a single drugstore where "a person can come in and buy any drug," the mayor said.
What are needed now are "real projects" for Soviet-foreign economic cooperation, like the construction of such a drugstore or a factory to make bricks, Sobchak said.