Commonwealth Might Help Speed Aid to Soviets, U.S. Officials Say

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid fresh warnings from the U.S. ambassador to Moscow that food shortages have reached the crisis stage in the crumbling Soviet Union, American officials said Tuesday that the newly formed Slavic commonwealth might help speed the delivery of Western aid to the Soviets.

"I think the food situation in certain areas is worse than you read," Ambassador Robert Strauss said. "In Moscow, the lines are getting longer for bread, and the bread costs more. There is an anger that I haven't seen before. . . ."

The chaos in the Soviet government has made it difficult for the United States and other Western nations to deliver aid and to negotiate debt relief, officials said. In trying to arrange deals, U.S. and other Western officials said they often have found that the government of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev lacks the authority to make decisions.

They thus have been forced to renegotiate agreements with officials from the republics. But now the new commonwealth linking Russia, Ukraine and Belarus might simplify the process. "We will still be giving the same amount of aid, but we will cut out the middle step of going through the center," said one State Department expert.

Ukraine's willingness to forge a new relationship with Russia also provides a basis for more stable trade relations between the two most important Soviet republics, officials said. For a time after the attempted August coup, Ukraine, the Soviet breadbasket, refused to send grain to Russia. And Russia, the premier energy producer, halted fuel shipments to Ukraine. But the new commonwealth should at least ease some strains on the Soviet food distribution system.

So far, U.S. food assistance has been carried out despite the apparent collapse of the central authority, American officials said. The first grain shipments since President Bush's decision in November to expand U.S. food aid should arrive in the Soviet Union this month, an Agriculture Department spokesman said Tuesday.

Western debt relief also should be able to continue under a new commonwealth, officials said. The debt talks always have involved individual republics, and local authorities have agreed to shoulder the repayment of the Soviet foreign debt.

But complicating the picture, officials said, is the absence in the commonwealth, so far, of the Central Asian republics of the Soviet empire. If the Soviet central government collapses, U.S. aid to Central Asia, where food shortages are severe, will have to go directly to each of the poverty stricken, remote republics.

Strauss challenged American corporations to invest in the Soviet Union. He warned that the Germans and Japanese are rushing in, while American firms sit on the sidelines.

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