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East bloc clearing way for much-delayed trade summit

By Eric BourneSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 21, 1983



Vienna

The Soviets and East Europeans have finally cleared the way for their first economic strategy summit in 12 years. The major purpose, according to the report from this week's three-day conference of prime ministers in East Berlin, is to map more intensive cooperation in Eastern Europe trade.

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Specifically, the summit would try to address both the economic difficulties each country is facing and their development problems, made acute because the West has greatly reduced the East bloc's access to its most advanced technology.

No date has yet been disclosed, but Soviet Premier Nikolai Tikhonov said the member countries could begin preparing at once for full-scale consultation within the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) at the highest level.

Such a conference will bring Soviet leader Yuri Andropov together with the other party leaders for the first discussion of overall economic strategy since he took office almost a year ago. For two years, Soviet reluctance and East European differences over national interests have postponed the summit.

Comecon's last summit was in 1971, when a comprehensive program for closer trading ties was approved.

The program has fallen far short of its goals. National rivalries are partly to blame. But largely it is the Soviet's reluctance to see politically secure bilateral ties replaced by East European decentralizing reforms and open-market structures implicit in real integration.

Andropov's predecessor, the late Leonid Brezhnev, was hesitant. But the new Soviet leader seems more aware of the nature of Russia's own problems and the need for innovation to try to overcome them. He has shown keen interest in Hungary's imaginative reform, notably in agriculture, some of which is already under initial experimentation in the Soviet Union.

Obviously, much will depend on how far Andropov is prepared to countenance changes even of tactical, let alone strategic, economic practice. For him, as for Mr. Brezhnev, Poland is a lesson of the hazards that ''too much'' latitude for economic initiative and too ''open'' a market can bring.

But Poland is also a lesson in the difficulty - now felt in all East bloc economies - caused by severe Western restrictions on supplying strategically important technology to communist countries.

This week's conference also signaled growing East European pressures on the Soviet Union itself.

Mr. Tikhonov criticized the often poor quality of East European industrial products.

He indicated that future deliveries of Soviet oil and gas will depend on the volume and upgrading to world standards of goods offered in exchange.

Some of the East Europeans, however, bluntly reminded him that they now suffer from adverse terms of trade: Soviet prices of hitherto cheap oil and other materials are rising, but what the Soviets pay for them for imports has remained static.

Hungarian Premier Gyorgy Lazar said that while modernization within Comecon is urgently needed, it is just as essential to boost export possibilities to outside markets - that is, to the hard-currency West, to which Hungary has gained considerable access because of its reforms.

How far the Soviets might encourage Comecom to follow Hungary's example is shadowed by international politics as much as by economic need. And East Europeans have not been so glum about East-West relations since Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968.