Russian officials appeal to keep food aid from being stolen

by Teresa Acklin
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   MOSCOW — Russian officials, concerned that food aid negotiations could have been scuttled because foreign partners feared that the food would simply be stolen, recently appealed to special services in that country to prevent food supplies from being stolen.

   “I don't want a single grain to be stolen,” Gennady Kulik, vice premier in charge of Russia's agro-industrial complex, said recently.

   The United States, one of several countries donating grain and foodstuffs to the troubled country, has insisted that strict guidelines be followed for distributing food “where it is needed most and avoiding control by the Russian Mafia and the black market,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

   In late December, the United States and Russian governments signed off on details of two food aid agreements with a total value of $625 million. Under the first agreement, the U.S. Commodity Credit Corp. will provide long-term, low-interest rate loans to the Russian government for the purchase of 1.5 million tonnes of foodstuffs, including 500,000 tonnes of maize, 200,000 tonnes of soybeans and 200,000 tonnes of wheat.

   Terms of the second agreement call for U.S. donation of 1.5 million tonnes of wheat to Russia under Section 416 of the Agricultural Act of 1949, which authorizes overseas donations of surplus U.S. commodities. The donated wheat, which will be distributed to various regions in Russia and milled into flour, has an estimated value of approximately $225 million. In addition, the C.C.C. will pay about $85 million in transportation costs.

   According to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, the initial U.S. wheat shipments were expected to begin in January and continue over the next several months.

   The U.S. also has required that Russia limit its wheat exports. The U.S.D.A. said that an independent agricultural research organization in Russia reported that the country's wheat exports for the third quarter of 1998 were up 320% compared with the same period in 1997. The 435,100 tonnes exported during this period represented nearly one-third of the wheat offered for donation by the U.S., according to the U.S.D.A.

   The European Union, Finland and Canada also have offered humanitarian aid to Russia, and several countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, including Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus, have agreed to supply foodstuffs to repay debts for oil and natural gas.

   Mr. Kulik, the Russian premier, said the country did not have enough wheat or other foodstuffs to last comfortably until the next harvest and “cannot do without food imports.” To avoid panic, however, government officials have tried to quell rumors about an impending famine in Russia, saying they are exaggerated and “benefit the food importers who spread them.” Mr. Kulik said the food aid would help keep prices at a level acceptable to the entire population and would prevent famine. The food supplies also will help domestic food producers, he said.