As the world gears up to help the Soviet Union with millions--perhaps billions--of dollars in food assistance, big donors are wrestling with a major reservation: The officials who have failed to feed this country will have control of most of the aid.
“At one point, yes, we’ll have to put the shipments in the hands of the Soviet government,” said Enno Barker, press counselor at the German Embassy here. “We don’t think we should define the method of distribution for the (Soviet) Council of Ministers.”
But the prospect of yet more food swallowed up by the state-run pipeline that has miserably failed to satisfy the needs of Moscow, Leningrad, the Urals and other areas despite a better-than-average harvest is galling to reformists like Vladimir Tikhonov, a member of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the legislature.
“I have no confidence that food from abroad . . . will reach people who will be starving here. The larger share could well be siphoned off to the black market, taken by (Communist) party officials or simply frittered away through disorganization,” Tikhonov said.
“It’s no wonder that Western countries are worried about the food situation here: We can’t distribute what we have grown this year,” the radical agronomist said.
In statistics that many other Soviet experts would call wildly exaggerated, Tikhonov estimates that at least 40 million of the Soviet population of 290 million people will be severely malnourished by the end of this winter.
Barker and other German officials say spot checks of the first two shipments of private aid that have arrived from Germany, the No. 1 donor to date, turned up no sign of misappropriation. But so much assistance is now on the way or under consideration by Western governments that there is no hope in this shortage- and black market-plagued nation of independently determining how it is doled out.
A special Soviet government commission says it intends to track “literally every crate,” and the KGB state security police has been mobilized to assist. But officials acknowledge that, until now, the inflow has been relatively small and easy to control. That is changing.
According to the Foreign Ministry, humanitarian aid from abroad already sent or earmarked for the Soviet Union has topped $160 million. A week from today, more than 200,000 parcels, each weighing 22 pounds and packed with macaroni, meat, fruit and milk, will begin coming in, Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Vitaly I. Churkin said.
On Friday, the German government began airlifting Berlin’s strategic food reserves to Moscow--a gigantic cache worth almost a third of a billion dollars--enough to feed 10 million people for a month.
By Soviet count, governments or charitable organizations from 21 countries have so far promised or shipped assistance. The biggest single program has yet to be decided upon: $2 billion in food aid and related services, such as transportation, from the European Community. That package will be discussed by leaders of the 12-nation EC next week in Rome.
“When the summit comes to discuss food for the Soviet Union, I am sure we will all be in favor in principle,” British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said. Forging consensus on how the aid is to be handed out will be harder, Hurd predicted.
For many donors, the aftermath of the Dec. 7, 1988, Armenian earthquake was a watershed. For the first time, in dramatic proof of this country’s greater candor under Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Kremlin opened the borders to let foreigners respond to a Soviet disaster.
Millions of dollars worth of aid poured in. But much of it never got to those hurt or left homeless by the earthquake, and many items even showed up for sale in Moscow bazaars. Within four months, 69 people had been thrown into prison for pillaging the aid stocks.
“We learned our lessons from the Armenian earthquake,” Hermann Ahrens, a spokesman for the German Interior Ministry, said in Bonn. “But we feel reassured that the Soviet government now has special units of the KGB assigned to guard the transports. If even one transport disappeared . . . the German people would quickly lose their desire to give.”
To reassure such donors, as well as Soviet citizens who fear the rapacity of speculators, President Gorbachev this week created the special government commission, under First Deputy Prime Minister Lev A. Voronin, to control the distribution of aid.
Soviet soldiers and policemen will have the chief responsibility of transporting and guarding shipments and monitoring how they reach the public, Voronin’s deputy, Igor I. Prostyakov, said. If need be, parcels will be shipped by the Soviet air force.
The KGB, long loathed by the West, is now seen by Germany and other foreign contributors as an island of relative integrity in a sea of Soviet corruption.
“The procedure for avoidance of any ‘tricks’ is simple--strict accounting for every crate as it crosses the border,” Prostyakov said. “Our representatives will accompany each shipment until the moment the recipient signs the papers.”
Some Soviets who have endured the breakdown of state control over the economy--widely seen as the major cause of the food shortages--are openly skeptical. Lydia Grafova, a correspondent of the Literaturnaya Gazeta weekly, says her nation’s government now is only “semi-powerful.”
“The West must establish conditions for its aid, and Gorbachev must agree to them,” Tikhonov recommended. “First, food aid must be distributed in regions where there is a shortage. That may seem elementary, but in 1921 (V. I.) Lenin used food sent as relief during a famine in the Volga Basin to feed so-called ‘revolutionary industrial centers’ rather than people who were starving.
“This could well be repeated; I even expect it,” Tikhonov asserted. “We need conditions that determine which channels will be used, where the goods will be sent, how it will all be monitored.”
So far the United States is lagging in sending government assistance, although President Bush said Nov. 30 that he was considering providing food credits, an action he said would necessitate waiving the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. If the United States were to dispatch food, a State Department official said Friday, “We would want to know how it is going to be distributed.”
Six key House members, including Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Budget Committee Chairman Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley), urged Bush on Friday to provide direct food and medical aid to the Soviet Union.
In a letter to the President, the congressmen said: “We would remind you that the United States remains the richest agricultural producer in the world. Our farmers would be glad of the opportunity to share their wealth with the victims of the Soviet system.
“It is clear that time is of the essence,” they said.
As for Germany, Barker replied when asked about his country’s goals in aiding the Soviet Union: “First, that it be registered as a political gesture.”
The Germans, reunited as one nation largely because of changes in Soviet policy wrought by Gorbachev, want to be seen as propping up the embattled Kremlin leadership and as reliable European neighbors.
However, the Bonn government also expects an advance accounting by the Soviet Council of Ministers of how its aid will be used. And although German officials say they do not tell private groups to whom to give money or supplies, in their Moscow embassy they acknowledge steering charities away from some Soviet organizations.