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Soviet relief and the chicken credit conundrum


Ten years ago U.S. policy makers were talking about using the food weapon as a way to weaken the Soviet Union. Today, Western food supplies flowing into a Soviet empire on the brink of collapse could become a key weapon in the increasingly fierce struggle for democracy.

The key issue is who will end up controlling the food aid's distribution: the old Communist hard-liners who still dominate the central government, or the democratic reformers now in charge of a growing number of newly elected city councils or soviets.

The stakes could be huge. After 70 years of pursuing "socialist ideals," comments the liberal weekly Moscow News, the country's economy is as devastated as Europe's was after World War II. In such a state, the public is likely to be grateful to whatever group personally delivers the goods.

For most Muscovites watching TV coverage of the meats, fruits and canned soups pouring in, the obvious distribution points should be the local democratically elected councils. These, after all, are the units on the frontline of the fight against food shortages created by the previous regime's mistakes. Every day they must deal with the disappearance of meat, milk, eggs, even bread that can suddenly hit a city, not to mention the tremendous social tensions these shortages generate.

Ensuring access to Western food aid would help these councils survive over the coming year, and solidify their grassroots base for democracy.

On the other hand, for the Communists, gaining control of the distribution of Western food aid may be their last chance to score points with hungry residents.

Suspicion is already widespread that the hard-liners are deliberately holding up the delivery of food supplies to discredit democrats at the local level. Many believe it is no accident the food shortages are worst in Moscow and Leningrad where the councils are most at odds with the Communist Party. The hard-liners, notes one political commentator, are waiting for the public to get sick and tired of the "good-for-nothing democrats who can't feed the very people who elected them."

There is no question that a smoothly run government aid effort would discount these rumors and show off the advantages of a fair and equitable socialist system. President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has already appointed a state commission to oversee the path Western aid will take from the moment it crosses the border to its delivery to city residents. But few here believe another bureaucratic apparatus would work.

Memories are still fresh of governmental bungling in the distribution of relief supplies to earthquake ravaged Armenia in 1987. The lesson of Armenia, they point out, is that governmental bodies are bound to be incompetent and corrupt.

Some have called instead for setting up a network of Western style nonprofit organizations to handle the relief aid. But critics counter that in a country as steeped in bureaucratic traditions as the U.S.S.R., the payoffs required to get around red tape would drastically reduce the aid finally reaching ordinary citizens. Nor is it likely such organizations could find the volunteers needed to staff their operations. Few people in the Soviet Union can afford to work for free.

As for importing Western relief workers, the historic parallels offer little ground for optimism. Back in the early 1920s, American non-profit organizations sent volunteers and food to starving Russia, but it wasn't long before the volunteers were accused of espionage and were deported. Now, too, the KGB chairman Vladimir Kruchkov has already accused the West of conducting economic sabotage by sending spoiled goods to the USSR.

In short, there is growing fear that those entrenched in the upper echelons of power would rather revive the Cold War and leave the Soviet citizen on the street without food for winter than surrender power to local democratic institution -- especially the right to distribute foreign aid. Even now, officials of the Russian republic are looking for excuses to divert the aid coming directly to city councils under the pretext of having to "check" it to avoid sabotage.

Muscovites give high marks to American chicken legs arriving here in large quantities, notes one local commentator. They joke about how cholesterol conscious Americans prefer chicken breasts, and how if you want a whole chicken you have to travel around the globe. But they also know that something so small as chicken legs could prove crucial in the fight for democracy, provided they get into the right hands.

Lev Yelin is an editor of the Moscow-based weekly New Times.

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