Vladivostok, 20 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The first shipment of U.S. grain has arrived at the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok.
Our correspondent reports the ship carrying the grain, the U.S. Juneau, began its voyage two weeks ago in Vancouver, Washington. Its cargo will hopefully end up as bread and macaroni in kitchens throughout the Russian Far East.
The shipment is the first of more than 3 million metric tons of food, including wheat, corn, rice, dry milk, poultry and seed, to be delivered under the program. The foodstuffs will be distributed by ship and rail to eight cities throughout the Russian Pacific region. It is part of a $1 billion U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) aid program for Russia.
A first shipload of seed was delivered last month in St. Petersburg.
Dennis Walker, director of the USDA's Moscow office, said more than half of the food will be provided free of charge by the U.S. government, and the rest is being sold on a long-term credit basis.
The grain will go to flour mills in cities ranging from Ussurisk, near the Far East city port of Vladivostok, to distant Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital of the Kamchatka peninsula.
The average wage in the Russian Far East is just $50 a month, so the foodstuffs will be made available in stores at cheap prices. Any profit will go to a pension fund to increase money for elderly Russians hard hit by last year's economic crisis.
U.S. and Russian officials say they've taken elaborate steps to ensure the aid doesn't end up in the hands of corrupt businessmen or corrupt government workers. They say both governments know in advance the approximate value of the commodities and they can investigate any mill that fails to earn sufficient money.
The aid comes at a difficult time for Russia. The years of Moscow's crony capitalism never brought better living standards to most citizens, particularly in the Far East. With the economic crisis, the standard of living has plummeted even further.
On top of that, many Russians are still suffering the trauma of witnessing the decline of their country from a superpower to a land where some people are living hand-to-mouth.
The feeling of frustration is evident in conversations here. The spokesman for the Vladivostok branch of the Communist Party, Alexander Reznichenko, told our correspondent that when he sees people living in poverty he agrees somebody should help them. On the other hand, he claims that America in its policy is using every means to humiliate Russia.
The aid program has had its share of critics.
Some say the program is nothing more than a vote-buying scheme by the governor of the Far Eastern region, Yevgeny Nazdratenko.
Red Cross officials, who have joined in the aid effort, point out that the program isn't really aid because some of the cost must be repaid.
The ship carrying the grain shipment is now on a break after its two-week voyage. Some 40 Bulgarian, Indian and Russian workers have come aboard to unload the vessel.
Captain Ron Snyder said his ship is one of eight vessels. He said 25 percent of U.S. foreign aid shipments must be sent in American ships and his ship, the Juneau, has hauled grain everywhere from Bangladesh to Russia in recent months. He said: "We're pretty much feeding the world."