In Helping Former Soviet Republics, US Helps Itself

A GREAT political transformation is under way. The 15 states of the former Soviet Union are in the process of trying to create new democracies and market economies from the ruins of the old communist order. The debate in the United States is whether, and how, to assist the former Soviet republics.

The old enemy is gone, but it would be wrong to conclude that the US can now distance itself from the former Soviet republics. The new order is fragile: Hunger, hardship, extreme nationalism, and ethnic conflict endanger reform. But there are also opportunities - for a brighter future for those who lived under communism, and for a safer, more stable world.

We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines and watch events unfold in these newly independent states. The West, and the US in particular, have an important role to play. Our leadership can be critical to the success of democracy and freedom in these republics.

It is in our enduring national interest to see 300 million people have the opportunity to enjoy the freedoms of democracy and the prosperity of a free economy. Free and democratic governments in these republics would mean many things for the US, including:

* less US defense spending and a reduced burden;

* a reduced nuclear threat;

* reduced arms exports, and more arms control;

* a reduced risk of environmental disasters, such as Chernobyl;

* commercial access to the vast natural resources of the republics through peaceful commerce;

* the promise of new markets and economic growth.

The former Soviet republics are moving in the direction we want them to go - toward free markets, democracy, and the rule of law. But they are not there yet.

If the republics fail at reform, the impact on Europe, the US, and the rest of the world would be severe. There are some 30,000 nuclear weapons in at least four new successor states to the former Soviet Union. Instability could result in the use of these weapons in inter-republic conflict, or nuclear technologies falling into the hands of terrorists or renegade states.

Other consequences of political instability and economic failure would be severe strain on the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, and large numbers of immigrants and refugees. It will be difficult to maintain stability and prosperity in the western half of Europe if there is chaos to the east.

The key question is how long Russian President Boris Yeltsin and other leaders will support reform. The costs of reform are painful. Those who advocate reform will eventually lose support. They are in a race against time. Assistance can help reform, and can buy time for it to work. Assistance can ease the squeeze on living standards, push governments toward reform, and galvanize the people. Assistance can give the reformers a chance to survive and to govern.

Large sums of money will be needed for several years to sustain Russia and other republics that move toward a market economy. The most important assistance Russia will need is a currency-stabilization fund. The purpose of such a fund is to create conditions favorable to trade and foreign investment.

The new states also need technical assistance in all the skills necessary for a market economy and democratic society, including banking, accounting, business management, public administration, and the rule of law. They will need, for a time, medical and food relief. They need help dismantling nuclear and chemical weapons, finding peaceful pursuits for scientists and engineers, and improving nuclear reactor safety. The poor Central Asian republics will need developmental assistance.

President Bush has asked Congress for assistance to the former Soviet republics. I support key elements of that proposal, including an increase in US contributions to the International Monetary Fund that will help Russia and others implement economic reform programs endorsed by the IMF. I also support US participation in a stabilization fund to make the ruble convertible.

The president also needs to urge leaders in Europe, Japan, and the Middle East to tap financial resources that are as large, or larger, than our own. US leadership in providing assistance can leverage a much bigger international assistance program.

The US had a great opportunity at the end of World War II to influence the shape of the postwar world. Turning Germany and Japan into democratic allies and prosperous trading partners was a great success for US foreign policy. We face a similar test in the former Soviet republics today. Whether we seize this opportunity to help Russia and others - and help ourselves - is the preeminent foreign-policy challenge of the day.

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