Chernenko as leader: Is orthodoxy enough?

The winds of change may one day blow through Russia, gusting right down Gorky Street, one of Moscow's main avenues leading to Red Square. But that day appears still some way off.

Instead, the selection of Konstantin Chernenko to succeed Yuri Andropov is widely seen here as an embrace of a familiar past - and a postponement of an inevitable reckoning with an unpleasant future.

Chernenko, now in his 70s, is closely identified with Leonid Brezhnev. He seemed always at Brezhnev's side as Andropov's burly predecessor held sway over the Soviet Union for 18 years.

It was a period notable for the buildup of military power, neglect of the consumer economy, and inertia within the party bureaucracy.

It is, of course, impossible to predict whether Chernenko will follow the same policies as his mentor.

If past pronouncements are any guide, his view of the world is shaped by orthodox communist ideology. Indeed, ideology and propaganda have been his special field during the last two years of his six-year tenure on the ruling Communist Party Politburo.

As far as is known, however, he has never demonstrated any substantial expertise in economics. He never worked in industrial management, and his published speeches contain only vague references to economic matters.

Yet no one in the Communist Party leadership can ignore this country's economic straits.

Chernenko, in his first speech as general secretary, told the party's Central Committee, ''The system of economic management, the whole of our economic machinery, needs a serious restructuring. Work in this direction has only been started.''

If Chernenko took a stroll outside his office in the Kremlin, stopping in the shops along Gorky Street, he would find abundant evidence of the need to speed up the process.

He would find plenty of bread, at absurdly low prices (as low as 9 cents a loaf). But he wouldn't find something as simple as a reusable, screw-top glass jar. He might be able to buy 1950s-style table radios. But a request for a desktop computer would draw a blank stare.

He would pass some impressive high-rise buildings. Might any of them have a sidewalk ''electronic bank teller'' so that he could make a cash withdrawal from his checking account?

Hardly. There are no such machines in the Soviet Union. For that matter, there are no checking accounts.

There is plenty of money in savings accounts, however. The amount grows by around 10 percent yearly. That doesn't reflect extraordinary thrift on the part of the Soviet people. Instead, it reflects a scarcity of things they want to buy.

During that walk, Konstantin Chernenko would see some of the manifestations of the formidable problems facing his society - problems that he inherits as the sixth leader of the largest country on the face of the earth.

This is a country that spends 10 percent of its annual budget subsidizing agriculture (hence the low bread prices). It spends $6.3 billion in hard currency - half the money it gets from exporting oil - to import food. Yet it still struggles to provide its populace with an ample, balanced diet.

This country produces more steel than any other country in the world, and yet somehow doesn't turn much of it into things that directly benefit consumers (even screw-on jar lids).

The average Soviet citizen has virtually no acquaintance with microelectronics or computers - or even digital clocks.

While the industrialized West, Japan, and other Asian countries are sprinting into a high-technology future, the Soviet Union is lumbering along in a heavy-industry past.

Experts say it is following virtually the same economic policy laid down by Joseph Stalin in the 1920s. It involves central economic planning, with the state controlling virtually every phase of the production cycle.

And the state has tended to favor heavy industry, which produces things that are easily quantifiable - tons of steel and concrete, for example, that go into the buildings along Gorky Street.

It has neglected, however, to determine whether there is a market for what the plan produces, and what the stores sell.

Moreover, the plan often ends up a fiction. The current five-year plan - the 11th in the country's history - was revised downward barely a year after it was approved. Still, enormous energy is expended in unquestioning fulfillment of the plan.

This lock-step rigidity has virtually squelched experimentation, innovation, and risk-taking. The Soviet Union has been denied the fruits of countless ''backyard inventors'' who were never allowed to invent. Capital has been used to build up conventional industries, not spin off new ones. The Soviet economy has been the loser.

Might Chernenko change that?

In his speech accepting his new post, he spoke of the expectation ''from our economic executives (of) more independence at all levels, a bold search and, if necessary, a well-justified risk in the name of increasing the effectiveness of the economy. . . .''

But he also said the beginnings of ''profound qualitative changes'' should be embodied in ''the 12th five-year plan,'' which starts in 1986.

Chernenko would also see a lot of militia along Gorky Street, in their distinctive fur hats and long gray coats. And he would doubtless see plenty of soldiers, too.

In fact, the Soviet military absorbs an estimated 12 to 14 percent of the country's economic output, and siphons off substantial sums of its investment capital. That is one of the other legacies of Leonid Brezhnev.

Will that change under Chernenko?

It's unlikely. In his first speech, he also promised the party faithful:

''We need no military superiority. We do not intend to dictate our will to others. But we will not permit the military equilibrium that has been achieved to be upset. And let nobody have even the slightest doubt about that: We will further see to it that our country's defense capacity (is) strengthened.''

Still, Chernenko also pledged himself to work at ''ensuring a rise in the living standards of the people.''

The people along Gorky Street would like that.

A woman in an olive-green coat says, ''We don't know how (Chernenko) works. But we think that he will continue the work that Andropov started.''

And a man in a black coat ventures, ''I think it must be the right choice. This is my personal opinion.

''I can't specify what kind of changes he'll make,'' he adds, ''but I think things won't be worse.''

That is a hope that millions of other Soviet citizens surely share.

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