The Russian Moment

FOR President George Bush to provide real leadership in aiding the shaky former Soviet Union, he must take matters beyond last week's announcement of a seemingly hefty Russian aid proposal.

It's not that vast funds are needed. Genuine commitment is needed. This is especially true given efforts this week by the Russian Congress to strip Boris Yeltsin of his powers to reform.

Mr. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker deserve credit for doing the right thing, however joylessly. Prodded by an elite consensus (including former President Richard Nixon and Democratic leader Sen. Sam Nunn) and reacting to the fact that the governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, nearly upstaged him in his specialty, foreign policy, Bush set aside his reluctance to spearhead aid to Russia and gave the speech.

And he got the headlines: $18 billion in loans, credits, and direct aid to Russia from the allies; and $6 billion in set-asides from the Group of Seven for a much-needed ruble-stabilization fund.

Given Bush's prudence and an angry take-care-of-our-own election-year climate, this was a step forward. The former Soviets at this historic, uncertain juncture need to feel at least an intention in the West to help them. Yeltsin, also under pressure by right-wingers, is bolstered by aid exceeding by a large order of magnitude anything Mikhail Gorbachev ever secured.

The problem is that Bush's aid proposal is much less than meets the eye. It lacks a plan or strategy. Basic issues such as which republics get what kind of help are not addressed. Nor is it clear that Western nations have agreed on their contributions. The $24 billion is a mythic number. Hard-currency aid is likely to be $3 billion to $4 billion. Working relations between Western institutions and those in Moscow and the republics are not clear.

Bush must address these areas - along with cajoling Congress to guarantee the $12 billion US share in International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans to Russia.

Granted, without real reforms in the old Soviet Union aid money will evaporate. Yet reforms won't catch hold without aid.

Stabilizing the ruble is the major challenge. The IMF stabilization loan won't be granted until Moscow implements an austerity program: a halt to printing rubles, efforts to privatize industry, and further freeing of prices.

Yet austerity alone isn't enough. Along with it, Yeltsin must develop a network of trust among basic institutions in Russia. A revamped central banking system, for example, must work in harmony with government.

Creating these new institutional ties is the most profound need in Russia.

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