WASHINGTON -- The United States will airlift hundreds of tons of food and medicine to the former Soviet republics next month in a gesture symbolizing a global effort to ease the transformation from communism.
The 54 sorties by U.S. military cargo planes, carrying surplus from the Persian Gulf war and other sources, were announced yesterday at the close of an international conference that grappled with the enormous logistical problems of getting humanitarian aid where it is needed.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III acknowledged that the airlift alone wouldn't come close to meeting the new nations' enormous needs as they struggle through their first winter of independence with collapsed economies and distribution systems.
But he said it would "vividly show the peoples of the former Soviet Union that those that once prepared for war with them now have the courage and conviction to say, 'We will now wage a new peace.' "
It was the most concrete result of a two-day, 47-nation conference aimed at assessing the republics' needs, identifying disparate sources of aid already available, tapping new ideas and coordinating delivery.
The session produced "action plans" for assistance in food, housing, energy, medicine and technical assistance, but these were for the most part vaguely worded and heavily dependent on follow-up consultations.
"Plans must now be followed by actions and results," said Frans Andriessen, vice president of the European Community.
Apart from $645 million in new funding pledged by President Bush, the session produced only modest new sums, even from Persian Gulf nations and Japan, although U.S. officials had stressed beforehand that it would not be a "pledging conference."
Saudi Arabia agreed to unfreeze $1.5 billion previously pledged to the Soviet Union. Japan pledged $50 million, and another $500 million in loans to provide Eastern European goods to the former Soviet republics. Japanese officials said their dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands barred greater sums.
South Korea offered $800 million in concessionary loans, and Thailand $400 million in such loans.
Argentina agreed to absorb as many as 100,000 ex-Soviet refugees, should that many people wish to leave.
The Persian Gulf nation of Oman pledged $200 million to assist Azerbaijan's oil industry.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary-General Manfred Woerner offered support in transportation, logistics and communications for the aid effort.
The conference ended with little of the sniping that had preceded it, most of that having come from France and other European states accusing the United States of trying to assert its control over an aid effort to which it had contributed little.
Heated exchanges were reported in some of the closed sessions, however, over what U.S. officials believed was an urgent need for follow-up. In the end, it was agreed that Portugal, which now has the European presidency, would host another conference in May and that Japan would host a possible third conference.
Conference participants offered only brief comments about the far greater challenge of helping to transform the former republics into functioning market economies with democratic institutions and diminished militaries.
These broader needs weren't included in the conference agenda, to the chagrin of critics. U.S. officials say that until Russia and other republics become members of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, perhaps this spring, talk of major economic aid is premature.
This includes a fund to stabilize the ruble, which Russia says it urgently needs to prevent a crippling wage-price spiral.
German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher said the republics would have to reduce their manufacture of weaponry if they are to expect continued enthusiasm to help them.
"It's very hard to explain to taxpayers that we are spending money for countries that are manufacturing arms that are no longer needed," Mr. Genscher said. "In our country we are reducing production [of weapons]. That has to be done there as well."
While the conference put pressure on all participants to demonstrate a willingness to help the former Soviet states, the pressure was greatest on the United States as host and instigator of the meeting.
U.S. officials voiced concern that even the amount pledged by Mr. Bush -- equal to what he also recently announced for Head Start, the preschool domestic education program for the disadvantaged -- would be hard to sell to the American public in a recession-troubled election year. They said the money could be made available by the decreased need for military expenditures.
The U.S. aid effort will be coordinated on the ground by Richard Armitage, a top Pentagon official in the Reagan administration who more recently negotiated with the Philippines on U.S. bases there.
Mindful of widespread theft or loss of aid now confronting private organizations, officials said Americans would trace food and medicine from landing to delivery. Only institutions such as hospitals and orphanages will be targeted for aid, they said.