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Gorbachev's first year: a shake-up, but little real change

By Gary ThatcherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 11, 1986



Moscow

One year after becoming Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev is a shaker, but not yet a mover. He has, according to Western diplomats and Soviet officials, shaken the Soviet government and Communist Party out of complacency, demanding that this country become more efficient, productive, and innovative. But having pointed out the chosen path, he seems to have difficulty getting his comrades to move along it.

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After a year in office, Mr. Gorbachev has appointed hundreds of new officials to sensitive political and economic jobs. He has ousted his chief political rivals and now seems fairly secure as Soviet leader. He has cracked down on alcoholism, among this country's most serious social and economic problems. Moreover, he has also inspired hope in many ordinary Soviet citizens that change is in the offing.

He has expanded economic experimentation and streamlined some parts of the government bureaucracy. Yet he has provided few concrete guides for ``intensifying'' scientific and technological progress, other than repeatedly demanding that it happen.

In foreign affairs, he has changed many of the players but left much of the policy in place. Although Soviet-American relations have improved, little real progress has been made on the central issue dividing the two countries -- nuclear arms control.

Assessing his first year in office, Western analysts seem puzzled. On the one hand, he remains a formidable public figure, both at home and abroad. However, at the same time, he seems curiously unwilling -- or unable -- to transmit his personal dynamism and resolve to Soviet society.

Some Kremlin-watchers think that Gorbachev has simply been overwhelmed by the multitude of challenges facing him, and is therefore concentrating on those things that are most immediately important.

Chief among them is consolidating his own power at home, says one Soviet analyst. Accordingly, Gorbachev retired two of his chief rivals in the ruling Politburo -- former Leningrad party boss Grigory Romanov and Moscow party boss Viktor Grishin. He also managed to replace nearly half the members of the party Central Committee during the just-completed party congress. Still, one diplomat observes, ``I don't think he's revered. I don't think his word is law.''

Another top priority is economic reform. Although he seems to be a man in a hurry on many issues, he has offered few specific economic initiatives and has admitted that it will take ``a good deal of time'' before his planned overhaul of the Soviet economy can be completed.

The economic record of his first year in office is mixed. He managed to slow the rate at which Soviet oil production is declining (from an annual figure of 4 percent to 3 percent), but it is declining nevertheless. The size of Soviet livestock herds is dropping, and meat imports are rising, but meat remains rationed in many cities.

Exports are falling, and so is export income -- exacerbated by the worldwide drop in the price of oil. And the country continues to import massive amounts of food, chiefly grain, including over $1 billion worth from its ideological nemesis, the United States.

Yet Gorbachev claims that the ``general crisis of capitalism'' is growing keener while the ``credibility'' of socialism as an economic system is growing clearer. In fact, analysts say that when it comes to ideology, he is orthodox indeed.

``He seems to think the system is basically sound, but that this country just hasn't come up with the right people to run it,'' says one Western diplomat. Another says that Gorbachev's pronouncements on ideology are not mere words. ``I am absolutely convinced that an apparatchik like Gorbachev believes all this,'' he says.

He has, however, addressed what seems to be another of his chief concerns -- shoring up relations with the United States. He met with President Reagan in Geneva last November and seems committed to coming to the US this year. Soviet officials say that he will come, despite public threats to the contrary.

One diplomat says that improving US-Soviet relations seems to be a major concern to Gorbachev. That was evident during the congress, he says, and will probably continue to be a major theme in coming years.

Gorbachev's chief concerns, then, seem to be consolidating power, demanding economic revitalization at home, and firming up US-Soviet relations. In the meantime, some issues have dropped to second rank in importance. So far, at least, he has either ignored these issues or sent out conflicting signals.

One such issue is relations between Moscow and its East-bloc allies. Gorbachev has called for closer economic cooperation and seems to have played a key role in pushing for the adoption of a long-range economic development plan for the East-bloc Comecon countries.

But analysts say few real changes have been made. Gorbachev's policies toward Eastern Europe ``remain unclear,'' says one Kremlin-watcher.