Soviets fall short as a full-service superpower

World news this past week has been dominated by the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the murder by three government security officers in Poland of Poland's popular and prominent Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko.

It will take months, perhaps longer, to find out whether the Indian political system is stable enough to absorb the loss of Mrs. Gandhi without prolonged turmoil.

Since the crime was committed by Sikhs and since the Sikhs are only about 2 percent of the total population, major civil war is not threatened. But the Sikh community is important beyond its numbers. It permeates the civil service and Army. Mrs. Gandhi's son has assumed the prime ministership. His first urgent task is to achieve reconciliation between Hindu and Sikh communities.

In Poland a central fact about the murder of Fr. Popieluszko is that the government itself apprehended the murderers, arrested them, has promised fullest investigation of possible conspirators, prosecution, and punishment. The government itself announced the crime at the head of its news bulletins.

The priest was an avowed and active nationalist and an overt supporter of the outlawed Solidarity movement. The Communist government must punish its own subordinates to avoid a major outburst of public resentment and defiance. It, too, will be gravely tested.

Behind these dominant and demanding news events something else became much clearer this week: Ethiopia, a Soviet client state since 1977 and an officially communist state since mid-September, suddenly is receiving fresh infusions of urgently needed food relief - not from Moscow, but from the United States, Britain, and other Western countries.

The Soviets, deeply embarrassed by their own inability to meet the food needs of one of their clients, this week promised 300 trucks, 12 transport planes, and 24 helicopters to help move the grain that is coming into Ethiopia from the West.

Nothing yet has so graphically exposed the fact that the Soviet Union is not a ''full service'' superpower to its clients. It can provide weapons and occasionally a big showy industrial item such as a power dam or steel mill. But Moscow, which trumpets itself as the patron of the third world, is short of food and cannot provide famine relief to its clients. Considering that this is the Soviets' sixth poor crop year in a row, any needy country would not be likely to look to Moscow for advice on how to improve its agricultural yield.

The shortcomings of the Soviet economic system are being highlighted on both sides. In Europe the satellite states have all gone back to some degree, and as far as they dare either overtly or clandestinely, to a private incentive system. All are doing better in food production than the Soviets. East Germany and Hungary are prime exhibits. They can largely take care of their own food needs.

In Asia, while the Soviet Union is suffering its sixth poor harvest, China is enjoying its fourth consecutive good harvest and probably its best ever. China decollectivized agriculture beginning in 1980. It has unleashed private enterprise on the farms. It has allowed farmers to earn money, keep it, and spend it as they choose. China has not had a bad harvest since.

China had a bumper harvest in 1982, a better one in 1983, and perhaps an even better one this year.

In other words, the Soviet economic system is no longer enticing to others. It has been repudiated as much as possible in Eastern Europe. It has been scrapped by China, which happens to include one-fourth of the human race. It is not being admired anywhere.

Successful empires are founded on ''full service.'' Guns alone are not enough. The Soviets are trying hard to regain at least normal diplomatic relations with China. But what has it to offer China? The latest round in Chinese-Soviet talks produced no new results.

The Chinese still stand on their three conditions. They want a reduction in Soviet forces on the Chinese frontier, an end to Soviet support for Vietnam, and Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Moscow still refuses.

Probably Moscow is more isolated today than ever in its brief career as an empire builder. The immediate question is how much can it keep of what it still has. It would not be accurate to say that China is moving back to capitalism. But it has revived incentives in agriculture with such success that it is now committed to doing the same for retail merchandising and many sectors of industry. The further China moves away from the Soviet economic system the more remote is the idea that the ideology of communism might someday draw it back.

The Egyptians once tried living as a Soviet client but gave it up as a bad deal. The Ethiopians are Moscow's most recent convert to communist ideology. They have been a client since 1977, an officially communist country only since September. But their famine problem is so grave that they have to call for outside help, and it comes to them from the West, not from Moscow.

There are an estimated 2,400 Soviet troops in Ethiopia today, and 11,000 Cuban troops. (Some sources say there are as many as 20,000 Cuban troops and advisers.) Ethiopia depends on this Soviet-bloc help to try to gain control of rebellious Eritrea.

The Ethiopians have a military reason to go on for awhile doing their business at the Moscow store. But someday they are going to want to tie in to a real ''full service'' supermarket. But Moscow simply cannot meet the competition in any department except guns.

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