THE question of how best to aid Russia and the other former Soviet republics breaks into two parts: short-term emergency help, and longer-term assistance in building a functioning market system.
The first part is relatively easy to deal with, at least in theory. The United States and Western Europe are competing to take the lead in shipping food and other humanitarian aid to Russia. The goal is to help people weather the combined onslaught of winter and unsubsidized prices.
But the problems are numerous: pilfering on that end and red tape on this. The aid often takes detours. But republic officials give assurances that the shipments are being policed, and Western donors are doing what they can to make reliable transportation arrangements.
Coordination among those trying to ease the food shortage has been absent. The Washington conference on aid, Jan. 22-24, should arrive at a unified plan for targeting the areas - mainly in the large cities - that most need emergency help.
Official aid is augmented by private donations. In the US, for instance, many communities with "sister cities" in the old Soviet Union have sponsored shipments of foodstuffs and other aid.
But the logistics are formidable. Washington should set up a clearinghouse for information on how to help.
Bad as current shortages may appear, the underlying problem is less an inability to produce food than the absence of economic incentives to assure that it gets to market. In the not-very-distant old days, the communist state simply took what the farms produced and in return supplied fertilizer, machinery, and other goods needed in the countryside. That system has vanished. With a currency rapidly losing its value and no assurance of getting desired items in return for their produce, farmers or farm manag ers are more likely to hold on to their grain or potatoes than ship them into a void. Unless the situation improves, Russian farmers may be tempted to plant even less next spring.
To help remedy this kind of economic distortion, a long-term commitment from the West is needed. Aid in stabilizing the ruble and building an inventory of consumer products is critical, as is access to international lending institutions. But just as important are people - people experienced in managing businesses, marketing products, or organizing transportation systems who are willing to give some time helping the Russians and others learn the free-market ropes.
In the US and elsewhere a will exists to help the old East bloc find its economic footing; it should be put to use quickly.