Robert S. Strauss was the first to admit that he knew little about Russia when President Bush named him as ambassador to Moscow last year. Where the Washington lawyer and Democratic wheeler-dealer does have expertise is in deal-making and persuasion. Surveying the shambles of Russia's economy, Strauss has come up with some imaginative ideas about how U.S. talent and experience can begin to help, and fairly quickly.
While others are thinking big, in terms of massive aid and credit packages, Strauss is thinking small. Among his ideas, as reported by Michael Parks of The Times' Moscow bureau:
--Open a dozen or so privately owned, small grocery stores in Moscow, to sell food staples. Strauss is confident this would attract local suppliers willing to sell their products at affordable prices, bypassing the grossly inefficient state food monopolies. One aim would be to provide visible proof that the free market works, essential if President Boris N. Yeltsin's economic reforms are to draw and hold on to popular support.
--Bring in a top American railroad expert to reorganize Russia's huge railway network, vital to improving the efficient movement of goods.
--Bring in experts to advise on how to make badly maintained oil fields more productive, boosting an industry that could be a major hard-currency earner.
--Bring in experts to advise on handling and storing farm products, to cut the current high level of waste.
Strauss strongly believes that the West has a major stake in seeing Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union transformed into viable market economies. He also notes that Russia, with its vast mineral deposits and other natural resources, has the inherent wealth to repay the enormous investment of foreign aid that such a transformation requires.
Meanwhile, the ambassador is thinking small, and out of that some good things could well come.