WORLD

Bracing for a flood

Rumors of mass departures worry Eastern Europeans

ANDREW BILSKI January 14 1991
WORLD

Bracing for a flood

Rumors of mass departures worry Eastern Europeans

ANDREW BILSKI January 14 1991

Bracing for a flood

WORLD

THE SOVIET UNION

Rumors of mass departures worry Eastern Europeans

On a cold, overcast morning in Moscow recently, 68-year-old Anna Semyonov stood in a long lineup outside a state-

run food store to try to buy some cheese. Like many of the pensioners in the queue, the retired teacher was the only member of her family who had time to find food for working sons, daughters and grandchildren. And it was with an uneasy mixture of shame and gratitude that Semyonov talked about the international food aid pouring into her country. “I am happy

that people in the West want to help us,” said Semyonov, a large, cheerful woman whose face was framed by brightred curls. “How can it be, though, that even poor countries like India—India!—are sending food to a country as rich as ours?” In the same lineup, Vladimir Chirkov, a 70-year-old war veteran with a nicotine-stained moustache, shuffled forward with the aid of a cane. He had been injured, he explained, while helping to drive German soldiers from the outskirts of Moscow in 1941. “We beat them, and now they are sending us food,” said Chirkov.

“Fine, but I am afraid we will become dependent on such gifts and never solve our problems.”

In recent months, the spectre of hunger and social unrest in the Soviet Union has led to an outpouring of international aid and has even created rumors that a tidal wave of Soviet refugees is set to inundate Eastern Europe.

Last week, President Mikhail Gorbachev struck a temporary economic accord with leaders of the 15 Soviet republics that could give him breathing space in his battle

to counter the chronic food shortages and widespread rationing that have followed a breakdown in economic ties among republics in the past year. And although a conference of international emigration experts last month in Prague dismissed the likelihood of a mass exodus, some experts said that Soviet authorities themselves were fuelling the rumors. Said one conference analyst, who asked to remain anonymous: “Hints from Moscow are designed

to blackmail the West into more, faster economic help and possibly even secure sympathy for a domestic crackdown in the Soviet Union.” Soviet officials routinely deny the allegations. But their worried neighbors to the west take seriously the threat of a human wave breaking across their borders. In Poland, Col. Zbigniew Skoczylas, the interior ministry official in charge of refugees, said that the government is preparing for three different scenarios. If the number of Soviet visitors to Poland

begins to increase significantly, Skoczylas said, his government might require them to exchange a mandatory minimum amount of currency, or even apply for visas. If Gorbachev were to impose martial law in the Soviet Union, he said, the Polish government would grant asylum to the estimated 120,000 daily Soviet visitors to Poland. However, Skoczylas added that the annual cost of feeding and housing those refugees would be about $1.4 billion—“and it would mean the collapse of the Polish economy.” Skoczylas described yet another possibility as “nightmarish.” If a violent revolution swept the Soviet Union, he said, Poland could expect two million refugees, which would cause the Polish state to collapse and start a domino effect throughout Eastern Europe. Declared Skoczylas: “Europe must help the Soviet Union whether we like it or not.”

Similar concerns are evident in Czechoslovakia and Hungary. The Prague government has created a crisis committee to study the problems that a mass influx of Soviet refugees would cre-

ate. Said government spokesman Martin Fendrych: “We have to stress that it is not just the problem of the buffer corridor—Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia—but for sure it is a problem for the whole of Europe, and perhaps for the whole world.” In fact, so great are Hungarian fears of a Soviet refugee invasion that the pro-government newspaper Magyar Hirlap (Hungarian Journal) recently warned, “Hungary might be forced to put up an Iron

Curtain along its eastern borders, a possibility in which self-preservation would triumph over its commitment to democracy.”

To help alleviate Soviet food shortages and show support for the embattled Gorbachev, foreign governments have sent billions of dollars’ worth of emergency aid, technical assistance and credits. At a December meeting of the 12-nation European Community at which leaders agreed on a $2.8-billion package of such aid, British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd declared: “It is not in the interests of Europe that the Soviet Union lapse into anarchy or that it should fall back into the hands of some backward-looking tyrant.” Canada has

pledged easier terms for nearly $1 billion in food credits.

The situation in the Soviet Union, however, remains precarious. Last Thursday, Gorbachev announced a temporary economic accord with rebellious republican leaders. The Soviet president said that agreement had been reached on food supplies for the coming year, and he hinted at progress in resolving disputes with the republics over who controls natural resources and hard-currency export earnings. But it was not clear whether the Kremlin had completely patched up differences with the Russian Federation, the largest republic, led by Gorbachev’s archrival, Boris Yeltsin, which

had recently threatened to cut its 1991 contribution to the national budget by $244 billion, or 83 per cent. And Lithuanian Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene told a news conference last week that her Baltic republic would continue its independent path. Declared Prunskiene: “Lithuania will not take part either in the union budget or in the currency or some other common funds and structures of the Soviet Union.” Gorbachev, meanwhile, has issued a flurry of recent orders designed to aid hungry consumers and contain social jg unrest. He assigned the KGB a g new task: cracking down on o theft and black-market profi¿ teering. He installed Boris S Pugo, the former head of the g KGB in Latvia, as mtenor min° ister in charge of the country’s regular police forces. He also reaffirmed his own intention to preserve the boundaries of the union. Those hard-line measures have sparked widespread speculation that Gorbachev was about to resort to dictatorial rule, and led to the sudden resignation of foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze last month. Gorbachev’s aides say that the Soviet president’s tough stance is a tactic intended to marshal conservative support for long-overdue reforms. With growing disorder and frustration within a fraying Soviet Union, however, failure could make dark predictions of a mass exodus increasingly realistic.

ANDREW BILSKI

MALCOLM GRAY

BOGDAN TUREK