WASHINGTON — AN urgent call from Moscow for food aid is in danger of being put on hold in Washington. The Soviet Union's backslide on reforms and the resurgence of hard-line rule have members of the Bush administration and Congress wringing their hands over whether to extend $1.5 billion in emergency food credits to Moscow.
The Soviet Union, once a leading grain exporter, is now reduced to publicly pleading for food aid from Europe, Asia, and the United States. The Soviets have quickly exhausted the $1 billion in US grain credits extended last December.
President Bush, who hosted a steady stream of Soviet and Baltic visitors here this week, says his primary concern is Moscow's questionable creditworthiness. A new law governing the US Department of Agriculture's Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) program, stipulates a government must have reasonable prospects for repayment before it qualifies for help.
Visiting Washington on Monday, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze implored Bush to extend the aid immediately. Success of Soviet economic and political reform hinges on the US decision, he said. Bush will exercise the final judgment.
Congressional opponents to more food aid for Moscow, such as Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, caution that Soviet conservatives will manipulate any assistance, rewarding loyal supporters by steering food their way - a development that will only forestall urgently needed economic restructuring. US taxpayers, critics say, will eventually pick up the unpaid Soviet tab.
Sen. Bill Bradley (D) of New Jersey vehemently opposes the aid. ``Market reformers have been sacked or resigned ... replaced by faceless bureaucrats to the right of Gorbachev'' while economic reform has been ``brought to an absolute screeching halt.''
``Soviet creditworthiness is falling like a rock,'' Senator Bradley says, citing the Kremlin's shrinking foreign-currency reserves, its arrears to US, European, and Japanese companies, and its desperate sale of gold - the bedrock of its economy - ``because it can't sell anything anyone else wants to buy.'' With the repression in the Baltics and ongoing Soviet political instability, ``it's not the time to do this,'' he says, referring to extending more aid.
Concern about Baltics
Members of Congress and Bush administration officials are worried that the Soviet central government will withhold food shipments to the Baltics as part of a systematic effort to weaken independence movements there.
Leaders of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were in Washington to press Bush and key congressional leaders for US support. The visiting leaders want Bush to deny the food credits until Moscow agrees to hold formal independence talks with Baltic governments.
The Soviet hand is out because it has no grip inside the country. ``There are substantial stores of grain in the USSR that farmers won't put on the market, because farmers mistrust their own government's policies. If his own farmers don't trust Gorbachev, why should we?'' DeConcini asks.
Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, the leading proponent of granting Moscow's aid request, has drafted a resolution that addresses the Soviet's ``dire need'' for grain, corn, and meal. Mr. Dole's constituency is the country's largest wheat-producing state. He discounts the notion that by withholding food aid, Washington can exercise leverage over the Kremlin's repressive policies. His resolution does require the Soviets to ensure repayment and that the aid will not be used against the republics.
It is naive to try to condition the aid on Gorbachev's promise to end repression, resuscitate reforms, or make repayments, DeConcini says. ``Gorbachev is no longer relevant to the process of democratization. He's not in the position to assure anyone of anything.''
Frank Gaffney, director of the conservative Washington-based Center for Security Policy, says Dole's proposal would squander US taxpayers' money and that the Kansas senator and other representatives from farm states are accustomed to putting their respective states' interests above the national interest.
If Washington fails to honor Moscow's request, there will be grave consequences for the US, says German consultant Stephan-Gotz Richter, president of TransAtlantic Futures Inc., a Washington firm active in the East European and Soviet reform process. ``The very forces we are trying to put in the grave - the KGB and the Army - will have a heyday in the Soviet domestic propaganda war.'' The net result will be Soviet resentment, says Mr. Richter. ``First, the Americans were critical in spawning Sov iet change and disrupting the comfortable communist structures - and took political pride in it.'' An absence of US aid, he warns, ``will provide the KGB and the Army with the tools of anti-Western rhetoric to kill reforms.''