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Russia: Economic Crisis Threatens Millions With Impoverishment

London, 14 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent says the Russian economic collapse, the onset of winter, and poor harvests threaten "devastating" consequences for millions of Russians.

It also says that the Russian crisis is likely to have an "enormous" knock-on effect across its borders on Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova.

A statement issued Friday says 73 million people in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova "are already living below the poverty line and many millions are expected to face the harshest winter in decades."

The Geneva-based federation is about to launch a major international appeal for humanitarian assistance to "meet the most essential needs of hundreds of thousands of people suffering the effects of the current social and financial crisis in Russia."

It says: "Little has been said about just how devastating the repercussions will be for an already beleaguered Russian population of close to 150 million, out of whom 31 million are estimated to be living below the poverty line. The knock-on effect across Russia's borders -- to Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova -- is likely to be enormous."

The statement says the Russian crisis has enveloped not only the most vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and disabled, but also social groups not normally associated with being underprivileged.

They include public employees such as teachers, miners, doctors, and workers in institutes, as well as those living in far-off regions that were subsidized under the Soviet system.

The federation last winter issued a multi-million dollar appeal to provide food and clothing for more than one million of the most vulnerable people in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova.

The statement says: "Conditions this winter are expected to be far worse as a result of the economic crisis which will push up the cost of food, create shortages (through reduced food imports), and increase fuel prices. The situation is further aggravated by the persistent non-payment of wages, pensions, and other benefits."

The statement says warnings of poor grain and potato harvests in Russia this year are already causing serious concern.

Only 28.6 million tons of grain had been harvested by the end of August compared with 55.2 million tons by August 1997 (i.e. some 48 percent of last year's harvest). A summer drought, followed by August rains, has ruined the potato crop, according to the Agriculture Ministry. Potatoes are said to account for 10 percent of the nation's caloric intake. The statement says there has been a striking increase in reliance on "dacha produce" grown on individual plots. Before the collapse of communism, 60 percent of Russia's potatoes were grown on private plots: this figure is now 90 percent.

Viktor Klestun, director of Russia's Agrarian Institute, has predicted "severe food shortages" particularly of vegetable oil and meat products. In 1997, Russia imported 650,00 tons of beef. Its meat factories are said to be operating at 37 percent capacity.

The statement says: "As the crisis in Russia has deepened, the flow of international aid has dwindled. Millions of Russians as well as neighboring peoples in Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova are now facing a rapid downward slide into poverty and misery."

"The 'coping mechanisms' of former times, such as the barter economy and dacha produce, must be supplemented by emergency assistance on a large scale if a human catastrophe is to be averted

Borje Sjokvist, head of the federation's Moscow delegation, says: "The situation is unpredictable but we are sure many more people will be affected this winter than last. We can't exclude the possibility of mass starvation if the situation continues to deteriorate."

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, together with the national societies of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, is identifying the most vulnerable sections of society and regions in advance of an appeal for humanitarian aid.

It is calling on national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies internationally to launch special fundraising campaigns such as street collections and postal appeals for donations.