Soviet Union tries to boost its trade with the West
If there is a political thaw, can an economic thaw be far behind? That is the question being explored here as the United States and the Soviet Union slowly begin trying to warm up trade relations which remained chilled as political relations froze up.Skip to next paragraph
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One indication of thaw is the opening of talks between US and Soviet trade negotiators here in Moscow. The meetings taking place this week mark the first time in nearly six years that high-level government delegations have explored trade questions.
This time, the US is represented by Undersecretary of Commerce Lionel Ulmer. But officials do not rule out the possibility that if the talks are successful, Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldridge might himself visit Moscow later in the year.
These developments -- taking place even as political negotiations are restarted in Geneva -- have encouraged some businesses to believe that US-Soviet trade, now estimated to total some $3 billion, could increase sharply.
T. Mitchell Ford, chairman of the Connecticut-based Emhart Corporation, a major supplier to the Soviet shoe industry, has predicted a new era in US-Soviet trade in coming years. Total trade could double by the 1990s, he predicted in mid-December.
Experts here do not discount the possibility that for some specific industries, the trade outlook is probably somewhat brighter now than it has been for several years.
But they caution against undue optimism. There are, they point out, a number of factors that still inhibit Soviet-American trade. Among them:
Restrictions on the export of high-technology equipment to the Soviet Union, since the technology might be diverted to military uses.
Continued Soviet restrictions on emigration, especially Jewish emigration, which strengthens US congressional opposition to expanded trade links.
Signs that production of Soviet oil -- this country's chief export earner of hard currency -- may have plateaued or even declined, forcing the Communist government here to make hard choices about what to buy from the West.
The inability of the Soviet economy to produce finished goods for which there is a market in the West.
Of these factors, the Soviets clearly see the first -- restrictions on technology transfer -- as the most onerous.
These restrictions are known by the acronymn ``Cocom,'' which stands for the Coordinating Committee on Export Controls of Western nations that have agreed not to ship items with potential military applications to the Soviet Union.
These restrictions have hampered the Soviets in efforts to build sophisticated radar and missile guidance systems. But some American companies claim they've also prevented the export of other equipment that has no apparent military application.
The Soviets have tacitly admitted that they're dependent on imported technology in certain key areas of the economy. Moreover, they've repeatedly called for an end to trade restrictions.
But some Western diplomats say that, given the Soviet Union's continuing arms buildup -- and its efforts to steal Western technology -- there is little prospect for easing the restrictions.
``The Cocom restrictions have just been renewed,'' says a Western diplomat, adding, ``and they're not going to change.''
If the Soviet Union wants to improve trade relations, it will also have to ease its continuing restrictions on emigration, specifically its treatment of would-be Jewish 'emigr'es. That does not appear to be in the offing.
The so-called Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 US Trade Act tied most-favored nation (MFN) trading status for the Soviet Union to Jewish emigration. It required that prior to the granting of MFN status -- which allows better terms for financing trade and lowers certain trade barriers -- the numbers of 'emigr'es would have to reasonably correspond to the numbers of applicants. An annual total of 60,000 was unofficially pegged as the minimum acceptable figure.