Russian response to aid is mixed: many welcome support; others see a foreign plot to weaken the nation

WESTERN leaders have trumpeted a $24-billion aid package to the Commonwealth of Independent States, saying it could soften the rough transition from communism to democracy and a market economy.

But the plan has been given a generally subdued reception in Russia, the former Soviet republic that will receive the bulk of Western assistance. Many here acknowledge the need for the aid, but nonetheless consider it humbling to a people with fierce pride and a highly developed sense of nationalism.

Russian government officials, buffeted by discontent over their crash economic reform program, quietly express gratitude for Western help. At the same time, however, they stress self-reliance as key to the success of a Russian market economy.

"Western aid is necessary but everything depends on what we are able to do ourselves," Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Ignatiev told Reuters. "There is a danger that we might become accustomed to Western help and not do all we should do."

The Western aid package includes $18 billion to encourage political and economic reforms. The other $6 billion would go to develop a stabilization fund for the ruble, Russia's currency.

The ability of Russia to stabilize its currency and curb inflation will largely determine whether it can gain fast access to further billions from world financial organization like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The government reform team, under Deputy Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, sees IMF support as pivotal.

Lately, however, the government has played down its close relationship with Western financial organizations to avoid drawing more criticism than it already faces. Some conservative legislators, speaking at the Russian Congress of People's Deputies, accused the government of taking orders from the IMF.

Those opposed to the rapid change deride the $24 billion Western aid effort. Russian parliament Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov says the aid falsely raises Russians' hopes.

"I don't believe too much in these billions," Mr. Khasbulatov said at a news conference last week. "The American economy is hit by a serious crisis. The West, including the United States, has no source for such major financing.... The entire world economy is not enough to drag Russia out of its crisis."

Meanwhile, there are those who see something sinister in the aid, which they say is meant to undermine Russian independence.

"If the United States is providing aid to Russia they are doing it not due to altruistic feeling, but due to their aspiration to integrate Russia into the new world order," wrote commentator V. Litov in the conservative Sovietskaya Rossiya daily.

On the streets of Moscow, where many are scrambling just to earn enough to survive drastic price hikes, some view Western aid as a tool to keep Russia from realizing its economic potential.

"We don't want this so-called charity," said Sergei Albert, a street vendor selling camera equipment. "The real intention of the American aid is to keep our country weak."

Amid such skepticism some say the multibillion-dollar package heralds an era of cooperation between Russia and the West.

"All the measures undertaken by the West mean that [Russian President] Boris Yeltsin during the July summit of the G-7 in Munich apparently will be able to get what last year [former Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev requested but failed to take away from London," wrote Sergei Dyomin in the weekly Commersant, referring to the Group of Seven summit of industrialized nations.

Last year, Mr. Gorbachev became the first Soviet leader to attend a Western economic summit. But the West failed to come up with concrete offers after the Soviet president's bid for aid.

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