There is no evidence of widespread hunger in the Soviet Union, one of the world's biggest grain growers, and a food aid program shouldn't be necessary this year, U.S. officials say.
"They produce an awful lot of meat and potatoes," one analyst said.Germany already has pledged food aid to the Soviets, and President Bush said in Paris this week he "would want to try to help . . . if there's a real need there." Canada, Italy and Spain all have extended bank credits and in some cases pledges of other assistance to help the beleaguered Gorbachev government.
The United States and other Western countries may join forces to feed the Soviet people if starvation appears imminent, but U.S. specialists in Soviet agriculture, economic and political affairs said in interviews this week there is no evidence at this point of genuine need.
"Food aid shouldn't be necessary this year," said one highly placed State Department official, who discussed the situation on condition he not be identified. "The countryside appears to have food. The agricultural regions of the Soviet Union and the cities in those regions appear to have food. Moscow and Leningrad, while obviously not an overflowing cornucopia, have food."
The grain harvest was exceptionally good this year, milk production is at record levels and meat could exceed last year's levels. Potato output is down, but not to a critical point.
"There is a problem for those on fixed incomes who cannot supplement their diets by shopping every so often at the rinok," or private farmers' market, the official said. "But basically, even those people are getting along. We don't have any evidence of significant or widespread hunger, imminent starvation or anything like that."
John Hardt, a Soviet affairs analyst with the Library of Congress, said the key to any assistance program should be setting conditions and imposing discipline to ensure that the Soviets implement the transition to a market system that Gorbachev has promised.
Experts say the Soviet Union alone can solve the main problem, a distribution system unable to deliver food to those in need. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher likened a Soviet aid program to pouring money down a hole.
"Clearly, it's mostly a political consideration, not a nutritional or an economic consideration," one U.S. source said. "The Germans offering food aid put some pressure on the rest of us to show the same kind of concern, but it's exasperating because it's their (the Soviets') problem to solve, and they're not taking the necessary steps."