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Turning point for Soviet system? Gorbachev plan for radical reform is now in place, but risks seen in party dissent and lack of clear public support

By Paul Quinn-JudgeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 3, 1987


In the past week, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has won support for the most far-reaching and complex reform program that the Soviet Union has seen in 60 years. That is the assessment of Communist Party reformers, who have expressed delight about the outcome of last week's meeting of the party's Central Committee and this week's meeting of the Supreme Soviet (the nation's nominal parliament).

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The reforms approved by those bodies aim to change the foundations of economic planning, creating a system that, by the end of the century, is economically far more efficient and politically much more attractive.

But reformers are also taking an enormous risk. They themselves admit they are embarking on changes without the support of a significant segment of the Communist Party.

Last week's plenum of the Central Committee gave substance to more than two years of reform rhetoric. Changes in the ruling Politburo, particularly the promotion of Alexander Yakovlev, Mr. Gorbachev's associate, greatly strengthened Gorbachev's position in the leadership.

By 1991, at the end of the current five-year plan, observers should be able to judge whether the program will succeed. The reforms stress financial incentives, individual initiative, efficiency, and high quality. Achieving this will almost certainly be accompanied by confusion and perhaps even turmoil.

Gorbachev's approach to reform borders on populism. A repeated emphasis on popular enthusiasm for change, coupled with deep distrust of both government and party bureaucracy, has become a central theme of his speeches. This tone was repeated yesterday in Pravda, the main party newspaper. In a long editorial, the paper spoke of the ``worrisome tendency'' of a number of party organizations to fall behind the mood for renewal.

This is a major departure from Soviet communist tradition. Revolution, Vladimir Lenin argued, was a ``professional art.'' Without direction from the professionals, workers would lapse into ``trade unionism'' - demands for better pay and conditions. Now Gorbachev is telling party officials that they - the revolutionary vanguard - have fallen behind the people.

Coupled with this is the leadership's admission that it does not have all the answers. Its constant references to Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP) have become a form of shorthand for relative ideological flexibility and economic experimentation. In an interview in May, Gorbachev quoted Lenin's remark that to understand world economy one needs 70 Karl Marxes, and added, ``He said that many decades ago. What about now!''

This does not mean retreat from Marxism. Gorbachev and his supporters are true believers who are trying to modernize their ideology. But this approach has given reformers leeway to play with ideas that could have got them in trouble a few years ago. They now mention their interest in China's agricultural success, the Hungarian economy, Japanese and American management methods. Some are reexamining more heretical ideas, such as the economic theories of Ota Sik, the Czech advocate of industrial decentralization who became a vice-premier under Alexander Dubcek, the leader of the 1968 Prague Spring revolt.

The rapidly intensifying attacks on Stalinism are another key part of reform. If NEP symbolizes flexibility, Stalinism represents rigidity and the suppression of debate.

The attacks appear to be carefully timed. Just before last week's Central Committee plenum, economist Nikolai Shmelyov disclosed that 17 million people had gone through Joseph Stalin's prison camps. Immediately after the plenum, an article in the weekly Ogonyok carried an attack on Sergei Trapeznikov, a former Central Committee member and close associate of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, for defending Stalin's methods in the mid-1960s.