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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- The Challenge Of A Hungry Russia

Washington, 12 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's requests to the West for emergency food aid call attention to a problem that few have been willing to face but that all are likely to be affected by: the specter of hunger in Russia this winter or next spring.

On Friday, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov asked visiting European Union President Jacques Santer for humanitarian food aid. And U.S. officials said last week that Moscow had approached Washington with a similar request.

The Russian government has been forced to turn to the West not only because this year's harvest there has been so bad but also because it does not have the financial resources to buy or even get credit for the purchase of the grain needed to feed its population.

According to the latest estimate of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Russia will harvest only 52 million tons of wheat and other grains this year. Not only does that figure reflect a decline from 88 million tons in 1997, but it is the worst harvest in Russia since 1953, the year Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died.

Even more ominous, the 1998 estimate is far below the 70 million tons of grain Russians consume either directly or through animal protein every year. Indeed, even with the 20 million tons the Russian authorities have stockpiled, both a degradation in the diet of most Russians and real hunger on the part of some are now real possibilities by spring when stocks are usually lowest.

And compounding these problems, Russia's financial crisis now means that Moscow lacks the means to pay for any additional food imports. Indeed, that crisis has already had a serious impact on the Russian diet which is already more heavily dependent on imported foods than almost any other country.

And that pattern, unprecedented in many respects, seems certain to have serious consequences for Russia itself, for its immediate neighbors and for the West as well.

The impact on Russia is both the most obvious and the most problematic. The bad harvest will certainly mean that Russians will eat less meat because there will be less fodder for livestock. And it will likely mean that Russians in areas that have traditionally had to import food from other parts of the country will suffer even more.

But if the human consequences are clear, the political ones are less certain. The further decay in the diet of many Russians will certainly make them even more cynical about the current Russian leaders and thus more willing to listen to those who insist that Boris Yeltsin and his team must be replaced.

At the same time, real hunger -- especially if it occurs outside the major cities -- is likely to have two diametrically opposite effects on the political system. On the one hand, it will certainly exacerbate regional tensions between regions with enough food and those without.

And on the other, it is likely to make the population more rather than less passive. And because Russian officials know their own history -- the February 1917 revolution began with bread riots -- they are likely to do everything they can to ensure that the cities are fed even if the countryside suffers.

Hunger in Russia will also have an impact on Russia's neighbors. Not only are some Russian officials now demanding that Ukraine and Belarus pay for Russian-supplied oil and gas with food rather than cash, but many governments in countries neighboring Russia are beginning to be concerned about the consequences in Russia, including demands for food and potential refugee flows.

But the greatest impact may turn out to be on the West largely because of the timing of the Russian requests for food.

Many Western analysts and political figures in the West are now inclined to blame Moscow for the current problems, asserting that Russia failed to reform far enough or fast enough or in the right way. And they suggest that any additional aid would just make the problem worse, throwing "good money after bad" in the words of some.

But while such arguments may be justified in the case of the kind that the International Monetary Fund has provided, they appear to miss the point when the issue involved is human suffering in the form of hunger and when the failure to respond to calls for humanitarian aid could have serious negative consequences in the future.

Twice in this century, the West has provided massive food aid to Russia: in the 1920s with the American Relief Administration and during World War II via Lend-Lease. Not only did these efforts save millions of Russian lives, they also helped to convince ordinary Russians that the West in general and Americans in particular cared about them, whatever Stalin said.

Now, with hunger once again threatening their country, Russians are more cynical about the West with many of them convinced that the West for some reason wants them to suffer in the aftermath of communism.

And if the West does not now provide assistance to them in this most humanitarian of areas, many more Russians are likely to become convinced of something that the Soviet leaders tried but failed to instill.

Should that happen, not only Russians but the prospects for all future cooperation between Russia and the West will suffer, yet another victim of the specter of hunger again visible on the Russian horizon.