WASHINGTON — AFTER several weeks of jockeying, sniping, second-guessing, and feather-smoothing, top representatives of some 60 nations and international organizations will sit down together here tomorrow to discuss aid coordination in the former Soviet Union.
The debate over whether the conference should be in Washington, given that Europe (particularly Germany) leads in donations, is now moot. But other differences of opinion remain, including debate over just how dire the food situation in the ex-USSR could become this winter.
Still, a key point of agreement has emerged on the eve of the two-day conference: The meeting will serve a useful function, even if it does not produce promises of greater aid.
United States and European officials have stated repeatedly that the aim of the conference is to coordinate existing aid, not to serve as a pledging conference, thus downplaying expectations for any dramatic announcements.
But with foreign ministers and other top officials from the West, Eastern Europe, wealthy Persian Gulf nations, the third world, and international organizations, including NATO, gathered in one spot, the meeting will serve a greater role than mere technical coordination in emergency provisions of food, shelter, and energy.
More important, the conference will focus world attention on the daunting challenge of transforming the formerly communist giant into a commonwealth of democratic, economically viable nations.
"It has to be a very strong political signal to have the presence of the ministers," says a German official here.
"I think the basic idea is to show all those countries who are more or less directly affected by the developments in the former Soviet Union that it is in their interest to join the club, so to speak, to bring this country over this winter, to avoid a dramatic, chaotic development which might spill over in a way which would heavily affect all the neighbors of this former [union]," says another German official based in Washington. Revising current levels
If the assembled dignitaries conclude that aid in the pipeline and in reserve is not sufficient, the high-level dynamic of the conference could produce its own pressure to consider additional funds.
"If you look at what you have and what you need, and there's a gap, people will say, 'OK, who now is prepared to raise a hand? said the second German official.
Germany itself, though, may be cool to the idea of donating more. It holds the top spot among all foreign donors of assistance to the new Commonwealth of Independent States, with some estimates above 80 percent of all Western aid to the 11 former Soviet republics.
Foreign aid figures are difficult to compare, US officials point out. Germany includes in its total of $35 billion pledged or delivered a sizable portion for the resettlement of the 370,000 Soviet troops based in what was East Germany. And aid totals reported by France include donations from French private voluntary organizations, says a US official.
The US so far has pledged a total of $4.5 billion in grain credits, medical aid, food deliveries, and technical assistance.
German officials here made an effort to praise the US for its efforts following a Washington Post article that quoted a top Foreign Ministry official saying the current aid relationship (Germany supplying the majority of assistance and Washington hosting the conference) "is nothing less than sick."
The officials here noted the political difficulty for the US, in light of the recession, the presidential campaign, and the electorate's growing distaste for foreign aid. (A Gallup poll last month found 35 percent of Americans feel the US is already giving the ex-Soviets too much, up from 19 percent in August.) US cites need for reforms
A senior administration official, speaking on background, stressed that the best solution for the commonwealth remained economic reform, not just hand-outs. Emergency aid to those in need, particularly the elderly, the handicapped, and the young is of vital importance through the winter, the official said.
"But if I blow in there and start delivering food on a micro level, I'm not teaching them anything. I'm not helping them solve their own problems," he says. "Our interest now is to get them into the IMF [the International Monetary Fund] and to get them to come up with a program that is coherent and addresses their problems."
The US has tried hard in St. Petersburg and Moscow to deliver aid directly to recipients, and to go back and double check that aid has not been diverted, says the official. "But every place we deliver has a back door," he says.
US and German officials add, though, that some reports that as much as 80 percent of aid has been diverted are an exaggeration.
A key point of disagreement between US and German officials is over the desperation of the situation. German officials here say the former Soviets have enough food to last until March. They predict "dramatic developments" by late spring.
The senior Bush administration official, however, says the US sees no danger of wide-scale starvation or malnutrition this winter. He acknowledges the range of projections for the commonwealth, and points out that comparing assessments will be an important element of this week's conference.
The meeting will produce action plans for food, shelter, medicine, energy, and technical aid. Both the European Community and Germany have proposed hosting follow-up conferences.
"We don't want this to be a one-time event," says the US official. "We want it to be the beginning of a process."