A Modest Sum

THE $3 billion in aid to Russia agreed to last Thursday by the G-7 nations in Toyko is at best a modest sum. But if the funds are quickly appropriated and used for reforms, Moscow may actually feel more trust and encouragement than after last year's G-7 summit, when $24 billion was promised, but went largely undelivered.

Most of the $3 billion is aimed at the difficult task of privatizing the large state-run enterprises that drove the Soviet Union's command economy. Most is not in the form of cash. Close to $2 billion of the money will be spent in the G-7 countries to purchase Western equipment and the expertise of technical consultants.

Moscow wanted more than the token aid it has seen before. It hoped for partnership with the West in such institutions as GATT and even the G-7. Certainly this is a proper long-term goal. At present, however, Russia does not have either the political or the economic infrastructure needed. But it is very much in the West's interest to keep supporting free-market reforms in Russia in the hopes that this will encourage liberalizing trends, including greater democracy.

Russia is muddling through, but also shows signs of progress:

* After 18 months of hyperinflation, the economy seems more stable. The ruble's value is holding; banks have raised interest rates.

* While in Tokyo, President Yeltsin took important steps towards easing relations with Japan. Tokyo had been halting some aid to Moscow over the Kurile Islands dispute. Russia is not yet ready to return the islands, but a deal may be under way.

* On Saturday the prime ministers of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus signed an agreement for an economic union that would allow free trade and low tariffs among the three.

These are still thin reeds to build on, given powerful impulses in the opposite direction. Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union has been in a desperate process of reinventing itself. Moscow is in perpetual crisis. It is involved in three wars on its borders - in Tajikistan, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Last week the Russian parliament claimed the hotly contested port of Sevastapol in the Crimea.

What Russia needs is a new constitution. Mr. Yeltsin will have one ready by September. A constitution would create a judicial system that will regularize laws and trade, and allow banks to coordinate activity. Real Western investment will follow.

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