With shipments of foreign food beginning to arrive in the Soviet Union, the government on Friday assigned the KGB, the state security and intelligence agency, to guard the supplies and ensure their fair distribution.
Planeloads of humanitarian assistance began to arrive in Moscow and Leningrad from Germany this week, and larger shipments are en route by train, ship and truck convoy in a growing effort to relieve the increasingly acute food shortages here.
The European Community is expected to approve donations of meat, dairy products and other surplus foodstuffs during its summit meeting in Rome this month. On Friday, the mayor of Vienna, during a visit to Moscow, pledged $2 million in food for the city’s elderly and poor.
Also on Friday, Japan decided to provide the Soviet Union with about $20 million in medicine and medical equipment through the World Health Organization to assist victims of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Officials said Japan will study a Soviet request for more assistance.
Even the United States, which has opposed such assistance, arguing that the food problem is not one of shortages but of distribution, is now reviewing its policy and may provide humanitarian assistance and perhaps government credits for agricultural purchases, President Bush said Friday in Washington.
During the European summit in Paris 10 days ago, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev outlined the Soviet Union’s most urgent food needs, including pork, beef, flour, butter, powdered milk and peanut oil.
While Gorbachev has already won long-term, low-interest credits to finance massive, multibillion-dollar purchases, some countries, led by Germany, have also begun providing humanitarian shipments of food as supplies here dwindled as winter set in.
Roland Dumas, the French foreign minister, argued Friday for greater assistance to avoid the Soviet Union’s collapse or the possible ouster of Gorbachev in a military coup.
“People I speak to in the Soviet Union say often to me that if Gorbachev fails, the Soviet Union risks a brutal return to the past, for example, a military coup d’etat, " Dumas told the Paris newspaper Le Figaro.
Another danger, he said, is the possible use of force to control popular unrest resulting from the food shortage. “Is it precisely to avoid that eventuality that the international community must encourage and help Gorbachev’s policy?” Dumas asked.
Western diplomats, however, have been concerned that the donated food might be stolen by black marketeers or siphoned off by corrupt officials or simply rot because of the country’s inefficient transportation and distribution system.
The assignment of the KGB to guard the shipments was intended both to allay those fears and to combat the huge black market that has grown as the state-managed economic system has disintegrated.
In Moscow, Mayor Gavriil Popov said the Soviet capital will distribute its share of foreign assistance through the 500 deputies on the City Council to ensure fairness. KGB troops will guard the loads, he said, and police will be used to ensure that there is no theft of the supplies by workers.
The KGB will also supervise the distribution of imports purchased by the state abroad and work with other agencies in improving the general supplies of food and consumer goods, a spokesman said.
KGB troops retain a general reputation for incorruptibility in a society where corruption increasingly is the rule, and their assignment is intended to reassure a restive population of fair distribution of the foreign assistance.
Gorbachev, in a related move Friday, ordered stricter supervision by workers’ committees of food and consumer goods, domestic as well as imported, after complaints that more than half of such supplies are diverted into the black market on the way to state stores.
In a decree issued under his emergency powers, Gorbachev authorized the committees to inspect all factories, stores, warehouses and means of transport with the aim of ensuring full delivery through the state retail network.
In Moscow, rationing will soon be taken a step further, Mayor Popov told a news conference. Residents will soon get cards allowing them to shop at designated stores at certain times and telling them what they may buy and how much they may spend.
Western diplomats, pressed by their governments to assess the severity of the Soviet Union’s food shortage and the likely political impact, believe that the country has more than sufficient food for the winter but that the rapid disintegration of the economic system as a whole is preventing its distribution.
“We see no credible evidence of anything approaching famine anywhere in the country at this stage,” a senior Western envoy said on Friday. “I see a tendency to dramatize all this in the West. Television footage of people waiting outside food shops has created the wrong impression of the situation as it is now. However, it is hard to predict what might be later in the winter. . . .
“The key problems are in hopeless distribution and in the political struggle between the republics, among the regions themselves and against the center in Moscow.”
With its largest-ever grain harvest, a reported 240 million tons, the Soviet Union should indeed have ample food supplies, but many collective and state farms are not selling the expected amounts, preferring instead to hold their produce because of the declining purchasing power of the ruble and the shortages of consumer goods from urban factories.
Popov, a radical economist who championed rapid development of a Soviet market economy, said that the basic problems, including the possibility of famine, stem from “internal disorder rather than natural conditions.”
In Moscow, people have a large amount of cash due to inflation, are afraid of the future and consequently have been hoarding huge amounts of goods, he said. The elderly have been hit particularly hard since their incomes are fixed and they generally have no other source of supply except state stores. Increasingly powerful criminal gangs also control the distribution of many goods in Moscow, Popov said.
“The main problem now, however, is getting the produce to Moscow,” Popov told the news conference. “It seems to me this is a big political question that is not solved yet. . . .
“There are products grown in the countryside. Where are they? They’re hidden. By whom? By the collective farms and the state farms. Our landowners and barons are getting in their last blows against perestroika (restructuring).”