The landslide Ukrainian vote to become an independent nation on Dec. 1 sounded the death knell for the Soviet Union. But in Russia, the late superpower's largest republic, even more important history is about to be made. Boris N. Yeltsin is poised to propel Russia into a market economy in the way that Poland attempted inconclusively last year. He is about to try what Western economic experts, ranging from the International Monetary Fund to Harvard Yard, urged Mikhail Gorbachev to do for years: free prices, cut deficits, and start making the ruble convertible with hard currencies.
But after lavishly dispensing advice and theory, those same economists, not to mention Russia's 150 million people, are holding their breath. That's because Russia's plunge into capitalism is fraught with extreme danger. The Russian economy is locked in a severe, protracted recession deeper than the worst year of the Great Depression in the U.S. More than half of all Russians earn poverty-level wages. For them to bear price hikes of up to 1,500% within the next several months will require immense fortitude. If goods and food, now being hoarded by black marketeers and farmers, don't show up soon in stores, the resulting backlash could touch off another coup attempt by nationalists or fascists. Unlike August's slapstick comedy, the next one could be a nuclear-tipped doozer.
The West must appreciate the enormity of Yeltsin's gamble. A massive influx of untied aid would be a waste, but there are other ways to help. Western banks could further ease their demands for repayment of more than $84 billion in Soviet debt, most of it shouldered by Russia. Emergency food and medicine shipments should stand ready. And setting up a dollar-backed fund of $10 billion to $15 billion to help stabilize the ruble should be seriously explored. The West has long urged the Russians to swallow this medicine. Now that the medicine is about to go down, it is in the West's self-interest as well as a moral obligation to see that it works.