Andropov's era of factory reform begins with a whimper

Soviet President Yuri Andropov has announced his first industrial reforms. But their scale and scope suggest the new leader is moving far more slowly to invigorate the country's notoriously inefficient factories than had been expected.

Presented in a government decree this week, the new measures do grant greater autonomy to managers to run their own plants and call for bigger wage differentials in order to give incentives to designers, technicians, and the most efficient workers.

But Western specialists who have analyzed the package say it is far less ambitious than they had expected.

When Mr. Andropov came to power last November, he voiced his determination to shake up the Soviet economy and said he was receptive to ideas based on reforms tried out in other East European countries. His comment prompted speculation in the West that he would act fast and be prepared to test out some fairly radical ideas. This week's announcement has largely dashed those expectations.

The leadership made clear that the new reforms are on a purely experimental basis. The decree said they would be restricted to ministries in the heavy-industry, electro-technical, and food-processing sectors.

The new measures will come into force only next January, and it is clear from the way they are organized that it could be years before their effects are assessed and, if approved, applied on a wider scale.

The leadership said the new methods were aimed at finding ways to raise productivity, speed up the introduction of new technology, and improve the quality of goods. Managers will be allowed greater influence on the production plans drawn up for their plants and given greater control over allocated funds and profits. They will be urged to use these powers to reward those who come up with ideas for streamlining production or making the finished product more attractive - especially for Moscow's sagging industrial export markets.

The changes are modeled closely on reforms introduced in Hungary and East Germany, where plant chiefs have been given extensive independence from central government control to fix output quotas, decide wage scales, and even seek their own markets.

But the text of the Soviet decree made clear the Kremlin was not ready to go anywhere near as far as Hungary and East Germany have. Definitions of managerial autonomy were kept vague. An ominous line said the whole system should help to strengthen centralized control rather than weaken it.

''The wording suggests that bureaucrats in Moscow will still retain considerable powers and will be able to step in and give orders if they are not happy with what a particular manager is doing,'' a Western diplomat said.

He said the crucial measure of managerial independence was the freedom to use factory finances, and the sections dealing with this were the haziest of them all.

But the new measures do offer the hope of dealing with some of the more obvious absurdities of the Soviet economic system.

Under the present antiquated system, factories are still rewarded more for the volume or weight of goods they turn out than for their quality. Managers often complain in the press that they find their plants penalized and workers' bonuses withdrawn after introducing ways to produce machinery using less steel, or after cutting back output of items that simply pile up in warehouses because they are no longer in demand.

The Andropov package states specifically that it is aimed at reversing these problems. But although it says managers should innovate, it fails to offer them one vital freedom to do so: the right to be released from plan targets for periods of weeks or months so that old equipment can be thrown out and entire installations renovated.

The new measures will do little to tackle the more serious endemic problems in Soviet industry, such as the badly organized supply of materials and parts from one plant to another. The party daily Pravda said this week that poor coordination between branches of the chemical industry was a prime reason for shortages of vital household goods.

For weeks there was no laundry detergent in the shops because the factories that produce it had not received vital ingredients. Now the shops are stacked to the ceiling with detergent, but nobody can get hold of any shoe polish anywhere, Pravda said.

The cautious nature of Andropov's reforms could indicate that he is less ambitious and more conservative in economic terms than many Western commentators had assumed. But it could also suggest that he has run up against strong opposition to change within the powerful bureaucratic and party structure. There is a risk his program will be strangled by the same apparatchiks who have a vested interest in maintaining their own power base by blocking any moves toward decentralization.

Andropov's predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, tried to come to grips with the cumbersome industrial system by introducing a program of experimental reforms in the mid-1960s. These fizzled out after they were effectively undermined by the Moscow-based industry ministries. The prospects for Andropov's program nearly two decades later do not look much rosier.

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