Western Food Shipments Buy Time For Reformers in Russian Cities
Aid seen as key to public support in political struggle with old guard
TUCKED away in the corner of a vast warehouse on the edge of this northern port city stand a few hundred cardboard boxes comprising the initial shipments of food aid delivered by Norway.Skip to next paragraph
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The small piles of parcels will grow in the coming weeks as more food and medicine arrive in Archangel. Yet by nearly all accounts the boxes of powdered milk, canned fish, and flour - part of the $2-million Norwegian assistance program to the city - will barely make a dent in the difficulties for thousands of city residents hard hit by Russia's crash economic reforms.
As a result of lifting price controls, about 70,000 of Arch-angel's 430,000 residents are living below the poverty line, city officials estimate.
Officials view Western assistance as key to social programs to help those hit hardest by reforms, particularly pensioners. But local observers say foreign aid's biggest contribution could be psychological.
"No one is going to die of hunger here in any case. But the humanitarian aid is needed to preserve the interest of the people in reforms," says Mikhail Danilov, political commentator for the city's daily newspaper.
As in many regions in Russia, a political power struggle is continuing in Archangel between conservative holdovers from Russia's Communist past, taking a go-slow approach to reform, and progressives pushing for radical change. While most city officials talk about rapid privatization of business, officials of the Archangel region, a territory roughly the size of France, are reluctant to advocate change.
"I was and will remain a Communist, and my opinion won't change," says Yuri Guskov, chairman of the regional legislature.
Because regional officials control most of the economic levers, broad reform, including privatization, has been delayed in Archangel, Mr. Danilov says.
Radical reformers have an opportunity to change the situation in December, when local and regional elections are scheduled. City officials say the regional leaders must be swept from office to pave the way for fundamental reform.
But Danilov warns that without foreign aid, city officials may not make it to December.
"Everything depends on the next few months," says Danilov, who heads the local chapter of the Democratic Russia movement. "We must preserve the hope of the people, because if they don't have hope they won't go to the polls."
The current level of Western aid, however, is insufficient to have the desired political impact on reform, he says.
To bolster their position, city officials hope to turn Archangel into a foreign aid distribution hub. Founded in 1584, Archangel is Russia's oldest port and has a long history of handling aid provided by the West. During World War II, for example, the northern ports of Archangel and Murmansk received Allied convoys delivering war materiel to the Soviet Union.
A United States diplomatic mission recently visited Archangel to assess the city's potential to handle contemporary foreign aid convoys. But according to Mr. Ivanov, nothing definite was agreed upon.