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This is the riddle the Soviets are trying to solve this year: "If everybody owns everything, does anybody really own anything?"

Although it sounds puzzling, the fact is that collective ownership in the Soviet Union means that everybody owns and nobody owns - and that has been true for most of Soviet communism's 73 years.But now they are caught up in an ideology-based debate about how to privatize everything from bakeries to locomotive factories.

It isn't easy because the concepts of private property and free enterprise violate everything that Soviet citizens have traditionally espoused. But their ability to change is the only way they will get Western aid.

According to a progressive agreement made this past weekend, the economically troubled Soviet Union will be granted access to the International Monetary Fund's brainpower - but not its financial assets.

The Washington-based IMF, which provides financial assistance and seeks to promote international monetary cooperation, currency stability and trade, has 155 member countries.

The Group of Seven, comprising the United States, Britain, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Canada, dominate the IMF. Since they work under the rule that only member nations receive aide, the Soviet Union would become the IMF's first associate member, under a plan originally proposed by President Bush.

Recently, loans have been made to Eastern European nations that are casting off centrally run economies in favor of free-market systems. Obviously, they want to see the same thing happen in the Soviet Union.

Thus, the Soviets will receive technical assistance but not loans - until they can demonstrate a major shift in their economy. That is the way it should be.

Any reform plan would also be overseen by the IMF and World Bank, a process that would subject the once-secretive Soviet Union to scrutiny of its ramshackle economy and could involve the West directly in the timing and nature of reforms.

Some Western leaders are predictably worried that any aid money without strings would be used to further fuel the arms race rather than restructure the Soviet economy.

Therefore, they want to see signs of privatization, price liberalization, the encouragement of private enterprise and structural reforms.

This is almost an overwhelming challenge for the Soviets, who are unused to the ways of free enterprise and afraid of assuming responsibility after decades of being told that Big Brother was minding the store and that initiative was socially unacceptable.

Besides, those at the top of the government and Communist Party hierarchies are fighting desperately to hold on to power.

As hard as it is, it must be done. It would be unproductive for all concerned to simply give the Soviets a massive hand-out. Soviet willingness to attack the problem head-on would prove their sincerity and set the stage for a wise and productive investment.