PERSPECTIVE ON THE SOVIET UNION : Europe Braces for Hungry Hordes : We must be a prompt and generous partner in the attempt to prevent mass migration on a scale unseen since WWII.

<i> Robert E. Hunter is vice president for regional programs and director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington</i>

As winter approaches, fears of invasion are reemerging in Western Europe. This time, the specter is not of Soviet shock troops advancing across the North German plain, but of hordes of civilians fleeing what could become the worst famine in the Soviet Union since the 1930s.

The prospect of Soviet refugees flooding westward is the inevitable result of the breakdown of order and the economy. The discipline fostered by reasonable certainty about the future is vanishing. Republics within the Soviet empire are engaging in self-serving practices that are producing the penalties of decentralization without the benefits. Communist apparatchiks, whose jobs are threatened by change, are engaging in sabotage. And the erosion of the system for distributing goods is presenting the irony of want in a year of bumper crops.

Within the next several months, therefore, millions of Soviet citizens, already cast adrift in their own country, are likely to press on the borders of neighboring countries, in many cases aided and abetted by Soviet authorities. Top Moscow officials are talking about the “export” next year of between 2 million and 7 million people. In response, Finland, the Western country with the longest border with the Soviet Union, is seeking ways to contain an extraordinary onslaught of migrants. The stimulus to migrate toward the promised land of the European Community will be compounded for Germany if, as expected, significant numbers of Soviet soldiers in former East Germany refuse repatriation.

Even West European countries buffered by Eastern neighbors from a direct flow of Soviet refugees cannot escape migration pressures from a similar human crisis in Central and Eastern Europe. There, the bloom is off the rose of revolution, as 1989’s euphoria has been replaced by the rigors of building pluralistic societies and market economies. In January, East European states will receive another economic blow, when they will be required to pay hard currency for Soviet oil--and at prices inflated by the Persian Gulf crisis.


Western Europe is thus facing the prospect of the most massive refugee influx since the 1940s. Yet simply closing borders would create a moral dilemma after years of Western efforts to tear down Cold War barriers. And the thought of forcing Soviet soldiers to go home recalls memories of American and British repatriation of Soviet soldiers to Josef Stalin’s slave camps in 1945.

In response to this unprecedented challenge, the European Community has decided to pursue the most humane and efficient remedy: to try providing incentives for people to stay at home. In Eastern Europe, the EC has taken the lead in beginning to provide the slow--but so far deficient--supply of capital, training and ideas needed to reform economies. The EC also has agreed to provide an extra $1 billion in aid to the Soviet Union, and Germany--most concerned about the Soviet future--has begun a major dispatch of food. Even so, these contributions will be inadequate in the face of the enormous requirements of feeding the Soviet people. It is also not clear how effective European food will be in reaching those who need it most, when so much Soviet-grown food is already going to waste.

As much politics as human concern is involved in European efforts. Since the collapse of Soviet power in Central Europe, the West’s basic strategy has been to avoid the historic mistake of 1919, when the victors of World War I exacted reparations from defeated Germany and paved the way for Adolf Hitler.

But this political strategy of forestalling Soviet isolation and revanchism will be more effective if it is backed up by genuine expressions of concern for the plight of the Soviet people--an attitude that can be recalled years hence when a successor state assumes a major role in Europe.

Unfortunately, West European wisdom and humanity are unmatched by the United States. Just as the Bush Administration is playing a secondary role in the reconstruction of Eastern Europe--a detachment that could prove to be a major strategic folly--it is absent from efforts to help the Soviet Union weather the prospect of famine. This country’s preoccupation with the federal budget and the Persian Gulf have inhibited American generosity and diverted the government’s attention from events in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that have no rival today for historic importance.

In 1921-23, Herbert Hoover led a $60-million U.S. famine relief program in Russia that reflected America’s moral sense; Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program in World War II reflected strategic sense. President Bush must recognize today’s moral and strategic interests by making good now his vague promises of future food assistance.