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Gorbachev Asks Republics to Help in Feeding Moscow : Soviet Union: Supplies of staples are dwindling in the capital and St. Petersburg. There is a fear of riots.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With protesters picketing City Hall to demand better food supplies and increasing reports of raids by hungry urbanites on farm stocks, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev appealed to leaders of four fertile republics on Friday to help feed the 9 million residents of Moscow.

Once cosseted and plump in their privileged position at the hub of the centralized Soviet supply system, Muscovites have seen the former showcase city deteriorate to the point that it reportedly verges on running out of meat, butter and even bread.

Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov has warned that unrest and possible riots now threaten the metropolis, and St. Petersburg, with a population of 5 million and even fewer food reserves in its warehouses, is in a similar plight.

Gorbachev, moved to a rare intervention in city affairs, met with Moscow officials on Thursday for a report on its desperate situation and issued his appeal on Friday to Ukraine, Belarus (formerly Byelorussia), Kazakhstan and Moldova, all republics with healthy farming sectors that have been holding back their produce to feed their own people.

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The telegram stresses, the Tass news agency reported, “that the reserves of meat, butter, sugar and oil are only enough for a few days, and the demand for bread has so grown that (Moscow lacks) the capacity to fill it.”

“On the eve of a decisive step toward a market economy and price liberalization, such a situation could lead to mass protests against democratic reforms and a serious aggravation of the social-political situation,” Gorbachev said.

But the appeal was unlikely to have any great effect because Gorbachev now lacks the power to influence the economy and reduce the main reason for urban shortages--the breakdown of the old centralized supply system into a hodgepodge of warring regions, each trying to hold on to its own output while receiving a maximum from elsewhere.

In tacit acknowledgment that Moscow must solve its own problems, Gorbachev said the capital will have to resort to food imports to supply its needs. It should also allow Muscovites to barter away more of their industrial production for food, he said.

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Soviet media estimate that the capital will enter a full-fledged food crisis within two weeks. Adding to the terrifying uncertainty that now characterizes everyday life here are official predictions that parts of the city’s heating system may give out, if there is a severe, prolonged cold snap like the one that appeared to begin Friday, when temperatures dropped to 5 below.

For Moscow authorities, the struggle to keep the city supplied has turned into a race to head off the popular discontent swelling in the food lines.

According to Tass, a crowd of protesters demanding improved food supplies confronted a vice chairman of the Moscow City Council on Friday outside the city government building. The councilman, Yuri Sedykh-Bondarenko, told the protesters that their demands were justified and that the council is working on barter deals to improve supplies.

Tass also reported a growing wave of theft in the countryside attributed to “hungry city residents.” About 160,000 sheep disappeared recently from collective farms around the Kazakh city of Naryn, it said, and scores of horses and cows have been stolen from collective farms in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia, where police units acknowledged their ineffectiveness against livestock thieves and brought in riot police units to help.

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In the Volga River city of Samara, Tass said, a robber armed with a pistol recently forced an unlucky buyer to give up the length of sausage he had just purchased.

“In hungry Samara, food crimes have grown ever more heinous,” the report said. “From the theft of potatoes from basements, the criminal world is turning to robbing restaurants, kindergartens and warehouses. They take away everything edible.”

Soviet consumers have long complained about empty stores, but the customary chorus is taking on a new note of desperation qualitatively different from the hunger scare that brought hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of food aid flooding in from abroad last winter. Bread lines, once rare, have become routine; milk, meat and butter are extremely difficult, often impossible, to find.

In most of the country, all staples except bread are rationed. Moscow had planned a similar system, but junked it in the belief that when the Russian Federation government frees prices on most goods Dec. 16, supplies will regulate themselves and ration coupons will no longer be needed. Moscow is also in the midst of an ambitious plan to quickly privatize all of the city’s small retail stores in hopes that their owners will have new incentive to hustle up more suppliers and improve their stocks.

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The Russian plan to release prices will be buttressed by a new taxation system that, according to measures passed Friday in the Russian Parliament, will include a whopping 28% value-added tax. The tax is expected to bring an extra 950 billion rubles into the Russian budget--about $10 billion under the new market rate--to help cover subsidies needed to help the poorest Russians through the painful transition to a market-driven economy.

The tax will be hard on consumers, Russian Federation economics chief Yegor Gaidar said, but at least it does not directly affect producers, who must be encouraged to turn out as much as possible to stem the ubiquitous shortages.

In a rare piece of economic good news, seven republics signed an economic agreement on Friday regulating 1992 price ceilings of key staple goods, as well as for gasoline and other necessities.

Various republics have often violated the agreements on economic practices that they signed in recent months. But the pricing agreement provided hope that Russia’s price liberalization will be at least partly coordinated with other republics, reducing the economic destabilization it will bring.

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