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Soviets Face Sharp Food Shortages

Regional rivalries strain distribution systems and keep store shelves empty

AS negotiators here struggle to assemble a legal and economic framework loosely binding the breakaway republics, severe food shortages threaten to thwart agreement.Prominent Soviet economist Grigory Yavlinksy, now drafting the plan for economic union, says negotiations for an economic union are "very difficult." The problems, he says, are that republics are acting in their self-interest and not moving toward inter-republican cooperation. The most pressing issue facing negotiators is the lack of adequate food supplies. Both central and republican authorities have failed to gain control over the broken-down distribution system.

Food stocks depleted The Economic Management Committee - the caretaker of the Soviet economy, of which Mr. Yavlinksy is a member - has delivered bad news to the State Council, a body composed of the republics' leaders and chaired by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Food stocks throughout the nation are quickly being depleted, committee reports say. The State Council responded by agreeing to preserve existing inter-republican links and to share foreign aid in the form of credits and foodstuffs. But these pledges have registered little impact, as poor management and inter-republican strife prevent deliveries and leave store shelves bare. Moscow, once supplied by food producers in the Russian republic and all over the Soviet Union, is particularly hard hit. A shattered distribution system has practically choked the country's largest city of commodities and processed goods. What does arrive is rapidly stripped from the shelves by hoarders and black-market profiteers. In every part of this city, long lines form when coveted foods become available. All types of meat, eggs, butter, and vegetables are in short supply in the state stores that service the 9 million metropolitan residents. The situation is steadily deteriorating. In Moscow's posh Sokol district, ground floor stores located in a grand building that houses the most senior Red Army officers are virtually barren. Display cases in the fish, meat, and dairy sections are empty. Only baby formula, tea, and spices a re for sale. At one counter, the last drops of sour cream are poured into an old woman's thermos. Others waiting in the long line for cream are turned away. "We have plenty of missiles, but no sausage," says one grim Moscow consumer. "Eggs have disappeared," adds another. "I haven't bought them for at least one month." While food is relatively abundant in shops and cooperatives that rely on a private network outside the state supply system, prices are too high for the average Muscovite. Nationalist moves on the republic level only make things worse. The Ukrainian Council of Ministers, for example, has forbidden the export, even on a barter basis, of Ukrainian goods, due to concerns about sufficient supplies for the Ukrainian internal market. The decision has sparked an economic war with neighboring Russia, where a large percentage of the republic's 150 million people rely heavily on Ukrainian grain and other foodstuffs. In response, Russia is withholding energy supplies to the Ukraine. According to the Soviet daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, 22 out of 30 Ukrainian airports are closed and flights in and out of the republics have been drastically reduced because of a fuel shortage. Republics dole out ration coupons, but people cannot even redeem the amount of goods to which they're entitled. In the vast Russian republic alone, the shortages are rampant. In Chelyabinsk, a city of over 1 million people in the southern Urals, flour is in severely short supply because the government in the neighboring republic of Kazakhstan has sealed its borders even for barter transactions. Trucks bound for the Southern Urals with grain from Kazakhstan are being stopped and unloaded on Kazakh territory, where the local government fears shortages in its own republic. In Perm, a city of roughly 1 million people in the middle Urals, basics such as sugar and flour are dwindling. In St. Petersburg, the second largest city in the crumbling Soviet Union, almost all foodstuffs - including sunflower oil, flour, butter, meat and sausage - are rationed. In Kemerovo, in southern Siberia, where a bitter winter is fast-approaching, staples are increasingly scarce. And in Irkutsk, in southeastern Siberia, sugar, butter, grain and flour products, and soap are in short supply. Leaders in Georgia seeking to cut all ties with the Soviet Union have isolated their republic's economy. Milk, butter, and meat once supplied by neighboring republics are now rarities. In the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azeri-imposed blockade has caused food shortages. There are repeated reports of hardship among children. The raging conflict continues despite recent efforts by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev to mediate. As communications and transportation collapse, the wholly import-dependent regions of the country, including remote areas such as northern Russia, Siberia, and the poor Central Asian republics, face especially severe shortages.

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Threat from the right Anti-democratic forces will capitalize on such deprivation, warns former Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who now co-chairs the Democratic Reform Movement. "The menace has not been removed. It is mounting. There is danger that the positions of the right-wing, reactionary forces will strengthen." He says the dangers of this unrest prompted him to join the consultative group formed by Mr. Gorbachev to help stabilize the situation in the country. As long as republics fail to muster the most essential cooperation in food supplies, prospects for a broader inter-republic economic network are dim. An influx of international food aid from Europe, North America, and Japan is expected to carry the country through the rough winter ahead, but more formidable foreign financial aid is contingent upon the ability of the center and the republics to work out an economic agreement.

Tomorrow: International posture on aiding the Soviets.

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