AGRICULTURAL officials in the former Soviet Union say they do not foresee severe famines over the next year and that most humanitarian aid from the West, although appreciated, has done little to solve their country's long-term food shortage problems.
At a four-day conference here at Middlebury College's picturesque Bread Loaf Mountain campus, American specialists along with representatives from Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan analyzed the troubled agricultural system in the former Soviet Union as the new independent nations move toward a market economy.
The conference was sponsored by the Geonomics Institute in Middlebury; the institute is a nonprofit research organization that promotes free-market reform.
"I would just like to say that the humanitarian aid by itself is very important but doesn't change things much," said Vladimir Palyutin, who heads the privatization department of the Russian State Property Committee. "I think the best kind of humanitarian aid is technology, equipment, or pharmaceuticals."
The old Soviet agricultural system of government-managed farm collectives is being decentralized. But the process has been difficult, with fundamental food distribution problems, hyperinflation, and only a patchwork of reforms to support the newly emerging, market-based system.
Mr. Palyutin says one problem with Western humanitarian aid is how to distribute the food equitably among so many in need. In addition, some food aid, sent as canned goods, isn't always appropriate for those most in need, such as elderly pensioners and orphaned children.
"Often there were such items that are not the basic foods for the elderly person," says Palyutin.
"I think the biggest surprise was the real confidence by the Russians on the limited need for humanitarian assistance in this next year," said Arthur Macy Cox, secretary of the American Committee on US-Soviet Relations in Washington. "I think they may be a little optimistic."
Over the past 18 months, the US has provided the former Soviets with about $200 million in humanitarian aid; $5 billion in credit guarantees; and, as of this year, $20 million in technical agricultural assistance, says a Western agricultural expert who asked not to be named.
But that amount of aid, both humanitarian and technical, is merely "a drop in the bucket," says the specialist.
"The biggest problem I see is to teach people how to function in a market economy."
The former Soviets applaud such ideas as the so-called "loaned executive" program led by former US Secretary of Agriculture Richard Lyng. The program involves sending US private executives to the former Soviet Union to act as consultants for Soviet managers in agriculture-related industries.
But many US experts say they do not foresee new initiatives coming from the West, especially from Washington, until after the United States presidential election.
"Congress has taken a jaundiced view of foreign aid in general," says Mr. Cox. "I don't think the West is as prepared to move as strongly with the kind of leadership that I would certainly hope for."
The Americans and former Soviets also discussed the difficult transition for farmers from a communist agrarian society to a market-based economy.
In a survey conducted by the Geonomics Institute in January, Soviet farm managers cited three main problems since the disintegration of the Soviet Union: the absence or contradiction of laws, the breakdown of central planning, and shortages of farm supplies such as tractors, trucks, and fertilizer.
Hyperinflation and the removal of price controls have made it especially difficult for private farmers. Natalia Tishchuk, a private farmer in the Russian republic, said that last year a baler cost 2,000 rubles; this year, the price has risen to 200,000 rubles.
Farmers must also contend with high prices for services, such as the repair of machinery and processing of grains.
"The prices today practically make animal husbandry impossible," Ms. Tishchuk said.
There are also policy differences within the different republics.
For example, while the Russian republic has shown a great interest in privatization, the republic of Kazakhstan, home to nomadic sheep farmers, is more cautious.
"Kazakhstan is pretty much sticking to the old system. They're pretty much not interested in freeing up land and privatization," says Cox.