Gorbachev's summit beyond the summit

Look at the November summit for a moment from Mikhail Gorbachev's perspective. He is doubtless delighted that much of the western press has credited him with a tactical coup for having underbid President Reagan with his proposed 50 percent cut in strategic nuclear arms. That drama dominated headlines for weeks as it was first leaked, then hinted at in Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's UN speech, next delivered by letter to the Oval Office, and finally unveiled in detail at Geneva.

It serves Mr. Gorbachev's goal of wooing West Europe as well as a sizable bloc of US public and congressional opinion.

But pre-summit tactical advantage is not the main goal of the Soviet boss. Even the Geneva summit itself is not the final summit for Gorbachev. The bustling, tough general secretary inevitably must be most interested in using the Geneva summit results to solidify his hold at next February's Communist party congress and beyond.

To put it bluntly, Mr. Gorbachev has an overriding interest in seeing that:

1. Space defense costs (``star wars''-type research, development, and testing) are kept to a minimum in the coming decade.

2. The cost of replacing existing nuclear missiles and warheads with more modern versions is also reduced. Anything like a 50 percent cut on ceilings for US and USSR land, sea, and air-based missiles/warheads means that the price of replacing older weapons with new SS-24 and SS-25 ground missiles, a new bomber, and air and sea launched cruise missiles now under development would be cut sharply.

3. His planning team can concentrate economic resources on retooling Soviet industry. Most major branches of that industrial base have fallen far behind the West in productivity and product quality. He is putting some tough-minded specialists in place to modernize. They will need major capital resources to do so.

Obviously the new Soviet leader would like to be able to convene his first party congress boasting a superpower agreement that allows the shifting of resources Moscow sorely needs. If he can portray himself as the first Kremlin leader to complete a major deal with Washington since Brezhnev met Nixon in 1972-74, he will improve his leverage.

One use for that leverage: completing the shift of elite posts from old guard Brezhnevists to his own followers. Mr. Gorbachev's mentor, Yuri Andropov, replaced about 20 percent of local party officials during his short reign. Gorbachev has replaced perhaps another 20 percent. But if central planners and key industry administrators are counted, as well as local party officials, Mark Beissinger at Harvard's Russian Research Center estimates that only about 7 or 8 percent of the governing elite has been G orbachized so far.

Rumors abound that more retirements are on the way. A successful summit would strengthen the Gorbachev steamroller. But nothing on the scale of the mass resignation of central committee and politburo figures in China would be expected.

The question raised by Mr. Gorbachev's economic needs is whether he would be willing to agree to a compromise on the pace of ``star wars'' development. Despite his success on the public opinion front, his cards are not particularly strong. His hope must be that Mr. Reagan, too, will be willing to compromise in order to satisfy European opinion and, more important, to shift American resources to help reduce deficits and debt.

To date, both Messrs. Gorbachev and Reagan have sounded uncompromising on the space-based missile defense question. The American President has repeatedly declared that he intends to continue research and some testing of parts of the defensive missile shield. Soviet affairs scholars who have recently visited Moscow report being inundated with pessimistic appraisals of summit prospects by Soviet officials and academics. Adam Ulam, director of the Russian Research Center and one of the recent visitors to M oscow reports that these gloomy reactions seem calculated to ``force concessions on SDI [the ``star wars'' Strategic Defense Initiative] and to discourage American pressure at the summit on regional issues [such as Afghanistan and Central America] and human rights.''

Despite these unyielding positions, it is possible that some agreed pace for star wars experimentation may be found. That becomes likely only if both sides can also find a mutually advantageous version of deep cuts in offensive missiles and warheads. This, in turn, may boil down to a question of whether Reagan advisers who favor accommodation in order to aid the American economy win out over advisers who favor trying to outsprint the stagnating Russian economy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gorbachev's economic situation is sharply defined. So far, he has not made major personnel changes at Gosplan, the economic central planning agency. But he has sharply stepped up from 5 to 26 the number of industries that his mentor Andropov allowed to experiment with profit incentives. He has made repeated calls for more discipline in the work place. He has suggested more skillful use of existing machinery and spare parts. And, he has made well-publicized visits to important industries t hat are lagging.

To date, this combination of moves has produced some slight gains in production after a lagging period last spring when he assumed power. But that is not enough to begin the kind of basic structural overhaul that will be needed if Soviet industry is to join the modern age of computerized, robotized plants with flexible manufacturing systems using machine plastics and ceramics and new biologic processes.

Gorbachev's options are limited. He cannot very well shift resources from the oil/gas industry, which is his biggest earner of hard currencies. The oil industry (but not gas) is suffering from world price declines and the extraction difficulties of increasingly remote fields. Nor can he easily shift resources from the troubled steel, transport, and construction sectors.

As a specialist for six years in agriculture, he is aware of the difficulty of gaining more resources from that sector -- unless he is willing to go the free market way of China. So far, all published evidence indicates that Politburo leaders are unwilling to imitate the Chinese farm experiment.

That leaves mainly the civilian consumer-goods sector and the strategic-military sector to yield the working capital for an economic overhaul. Yuri Andropov set an example of keeping consumer goods immune as a counterpoise to his workplace discipline program. His heir Gorbachev may be expected to follow suit. Hence the concentration on offers of deep strategic-arms cuts.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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