Western Food Shipments Buy Time For Reformers in Russian Cities

Aid seen as key to public support in political struggle with old guard

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"We're prepared at any time to receive cargo ships," he says. "The city is capable of unloading and transporting cargo quickly."

Even if aid begins to pour into Archangel it will not be enough to guarantee the support of the people for further reforms. The key will be distributing the aid effectively, something that the officials admit will challenge the city's logistical capabilities.

Handling the relatively small amount of aid that has arrived in recent months has already burdened the system.

Valentina Badanina, head of the regional Red Cross organization, says that while there have not been problems with aid being lost or stolen, officials have had difficulty targeting recipients. Plenty of people are falling through the cracks because officials must rely on sketchy data to determine who receives aid, she says.

"We are only going by numbers. No human factors are being taken into consideration," Ms. Badanina says.

Municipal leaders are counting heavily on foreign aid to help get Archangel back on its feet. "We're hoping that within a year we'll be able to regulate the situation ourselves, but in the meantime, we need aid very much," says Alexander Ivanov, the Archangel City Council chairman.

Significant amounts of Western aid only recently began to arrive in Archangel. Norway, Germany, and the US Operation Provide Hope have shipped aid to the region.

On the surface it does not appear Archangel has a big need for foreign assistance. Many food stores are relatively well stocked with canned goods, dairy products, bread, and smoked fish. But the prices in Archangel are almost as high as those paid in Moscow and St. Petersburg, while average salaries are much lower than those in Russia's major urban centers. As a result, many Archangel residents are unable to afford food and most are suffering from dietary deficiencies, Ivanov says.

The assistance provided by the West so far is enough to meet only a fraction of the need, says Johan Olav Seland, a representative of the Norwegian Lutheran Church, one of three organizations involved in the Norwegian aid effort.

"At best the food aid parcels will help only a few people over the short term," Mr. Seland says as he stands in a vast warehouse on the edge of the city, inspecting recent food shipments.

Meanwhile, tolerance among Archangel residents for the hardships brought on by the radical reforms, as well as their faith in the abilities of city officials, continue to wane.

"City officials say a lot of things, but so far I don't see concrete actions to support their words," says office worker Katya Okulova. The hopelessness many feel figured strongly in a joke told by architect Andrei Sitnikov.

"Here we have two paths to development: reality and fantasy," Sitnikov began.

"Reality would be if Martians came down and did everything for us," he continued. "Fantasy would be if we managed to do everything ourselves."

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