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Russia: U.S. Views Food Aid Program A Success

Washington, 27 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reaches the six-month marker in its food aid agreement with Russia, officials are heralding the progress of the campaign, calling it "proof" that both countries can work together efficiently when "they put their minds to it."

Bobby Ritchey, an agricultural economist with the USDA, says both Russia and the U.S. are cooperating to best manage the distribution of food commodities and loans. The distribution is closely monitored with weekly meetings held in Moscow between U.S. and Russian officials.

"Even at the height of the all the Kosovo problems, the Russian government officials, quite high government, came to these meetings. We've worked together and we've moved it forward."

The agreement includes both a commodities donation worth about $400 million and a twenty-year, low interest loan of $500 million that enables Russia to buy foodstuffs. The focus of the commodities donation is to get food out into the countryside to Russians who have been hardest hit by the economic recession.

The loan is designed to stimulate the Russian economy and to replenish the government's fund for pensioners. Taxes from the commodities bought with the U.S. food aid loan will be directed back to the pensioner fund, giving a cash infusion to veterans and their wives, who have been living without any income since the economic turmoil began.

In addition, the USDA has also given five international volunteer organizations 100,000 tons of commodities to distribute to Russians who need them most, such as orphans and senior citizens.

One USDA official says the food aid agreement with Russia is "the largest package being delivered anywhere."

And so far, says Ritchey, so good.

Close to 600,000 tons of wheat has been delivered, with shipments of corn, soybeans, rice and meat on the way. According to the USDA, no product has disappeared.

To best prepare for the summer months, when the USDA predicts food delivery will reach its height, authorities are alerting local governments in the Russian countryside of the exact details of food deliveries.

"One of things that we're trying to do is get the word out. We want to make sure that people know this food is coming. So that, if there are issues or problems they're brought to everybody's attention."

Although authorities with the USDA have expressed confidence in the progress of the food distribution in Russia, they are reluctant to discuss whether the agreement will be renewed next year.

"The Russian government has already asked for some more for next year. We have told the Russian government that we want to insure that this program operates and that it gets to where its going, that the food doesn't get diverted or stolen. And the second part of it, we want to make sure that the money that's generated, it goes and pays those pensions. And until we know that these two things are operating, we have told the Russians that we didn't feel comfortable talking about some more."

The USDA is hoping that the present aid package will stimulate Russian agriculture, eliminating the need for future aid. But, says Ritchey, if recent years are any indication, it might take more than a year for the Russians to develop a sustainable agriculture.

" A lot will depend on how well or how good the Russian harvest is, which will take place in August or September. Last year they had the smallest harvest in fifty or sixty years of grain."