Soviet officials' ouster hints at coming criticism of Brezhnev

As a once-in-five-years Soviet Communist Party Congress approaches, there are growing signs that criticism of late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev will emerge as a key theme of the gathering. Two longtime associates of Brezhnev, Politburo member Viktor Grishin and Central Committee Secretary Konstantin Rusakov, lost their jobs during a secret plenum of the party's Central Committee held Tuesday.

Mr. Grishin, the former Moscow party boss who rose to prominence under Brezhnev, was retired, according to Tass, the official Soviet news agency. No reason for his retirement was given.

Mr. Rusakov, a specialist on relations with other communist countries and formerly Brezhnev's personal aide, retired for ``health reasons,'' Tass reported.

Western Kremlin-watchers had expected Grishin's departure. He was replaced as Moscow party chieftain last December after stinging criticism in the official press. His successor, Boris Yeltsin, was named an alternate (nonvoting) member of the Politburo during yesterday's plenum.

The moves are yet another sign of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's growing hold on political power here. They could also be precursors of a move to hold Brezhnev responsible for many of the political and economic problems that bedevil this country at the congress, which is scheduled to get under way next Tuesday.

As late as this week, party officials were still putting the finishing touches on some of the documents that will be adopted at the congress. These include a new set of party rules, a new party program, a new five-year economic plan, and a long-range economic plan stretching to the year 2000. Advance drafts of some of the documents contained criticism of former Soviet leaders. Although their names were not used, the context made it clear that Brezhnev was blamed for not putting a curb on corruption and for failing to encourage economic and technological innovation.

Mr. Gorbachev has inherited the legacy of the Brezhnev years, which includes continuing problems in agriculture and oil production -- issues which are interrelated and have been aggravated by falling oil prices.

The Soviet Union, the world's largest oil producer, depends heavily on oil exports to finance imports of food and new technology from the West. But oil prices have dropped by nearly half since November, costing this country millions of dollars in foreign exchange earnings. If prices do not recover, some economists say, Soviet losses will run into the billions by year's end.

Meanwhile, the situation is aggravated by falling Soviet oil production. Production in 1985 was 18 million tons under that of 1984. Reports in the official press indicate that problems in the oil industry persist, and that production could continue to drop during the first quarter of this year.

Some 60 percent of the country's oil revenues go for the purchase of food from abroad, notably grain. Grain production figures have also fallen short of plan targets by an average of 56 million tons in each of the past five years -- despite an ambitious ``food program'' launched by Brezhnev at the last party congress, held in 1981.

In part because of these problems, some Western Kremlin-watchers predict that this congress, while busying itself with discussion and eventual adoption of the new documents, may well level criticism at the Brezhnev years.

That, in turn, will help Gorbachev in his continuing effort to unseat Brezhnev's cronies and put his own supporters in key party and government posts.

Seen in that context, the retirement of Grishin and Rusakov could be signals of more housecleaning to come.

Gorbachev has, however, already managed to put a number of his own allies in important posts in the 11 months that he has been in office. Of the 10 other full members of the ruling Politburo, seven were appointed during the tenure of Gorbachev or his mentor, the late Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. There are only three holdover Brezhnev appointees.

Of the seven Central Committee secretaries apart from Gorbachev, two were appointed during Gorbachev's tenure and one more, although appointed earlier, has strong ties to him. When Gorbachev fills the vacancies on the Secretariat that have been created by recent retirements and promotions, he will doubtless place his own supporters in office as counterweights to the Brezhnev holdovers.

Such head counts are of more than academic interest. Gorbachev seems to believe, according to one Western analyst, that the Soviet Union's economic and political system is basically sound, but that the country has yet to find the right individuals in key posts to make it work efficiently. Thus, according to this analyst, Gorbachev probably sees personnel matters as a prerequisite to economic reform, not an adjunct to it.

Other Western analysts say the economic plans to be adopted by the party seem to rely on increased discipline in the labor force, but don't offer incentives. Much of the country's investment resources are earmarked for shoring up the energy sector and introducing new technology into manufacturing. Consumers seem to have been given short shrift, a number of Western diplomats say.

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