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Russia: Food Aid May Not Reach The Needy

Moscow, 16 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A Western news agency has quoted Russian food traders as saying promised Western food aid might fail to reach the country's needy regions.

To prevent food shortages this Winter in Russia's most remote regions, U.S. and Russian officials last week signed a food-aid accord worth $625 million. Today the 15-nation European Union reported agreement in principle with Russia on a food-aid package worth $500 million.

Deputy Prime Minister Gennadi Kulik, Russia's top food-aid official, told journalists (Nov. 12) that the government will do everything possible to make sure the most needy and remote regions, particularly in the North and Far East, receive food supplies soon.

But also on Thursday (Nov. 12) the Bloomberg financial news agency said that Russian food traders were far from sure the needy regions would get the necessary food. The traders said that was because the government intended to use the food aid to pay debts to state-supported companies.

The report quoted Mikhail Gazetov, director of the Ryazan Grain Company, as saying: "After the government distributes food aid to cover its debt, it will certainly be offered for cash on the market and will appear where buyers can afford to pay for it, rather than where real food shortages exist."

Bloomberg also quoted Andrei Sizov, a consultant to the food-trade company Roskhleboprodukt, as saying the government will select three trading companies that will get the food at Russia's borders and hand it over to a second group of companies as settlement for unpaid subsidies.

Roskhlebprodukt is a partially state-owned company. The company's head, Leonid Cheshinsky, was the only Russian trader taking part in negotiations with U.S. officials last week. He has said his company is likely to be one of those selected to handle deliveries.

Roskhleboprodukt was established in Soviet times as the state grain-procurement agency. In 1992, it oversaw the distribution of U.S. food aid to Russia, an operation that proved disastrous. Much of the aid simply disappeared.

Despite the West's promised aid, there are differing views within Russia on how serious a threat there is of mass hunger this Winter. Earlier this week, Russian Agriculture Minister Viktor Semyonov called the reports about coming mass hunger "exaggerated."

But Semyonov admitted that the food-market situation was what he described as "tense." The leader of the Agrarian faction in the State Duma said in interviews this week that a number of regions which failed to build up food reserves during the Summer are already experiencing supply problems.