Down on the Farm With Mikhail

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV just can't plow a straight furrow. This was demonstrated by his recent agriculture reforms, which veered to follow the Soviet political landscape. Individuals will be able to lease land for life and pass it along to heirs - a push toward private ownership designed to put incentives and competition back on the farm. But the collective-farm system will remain the heart of Soviet agriculture, a fact applauded by farm minister and ranking conservative, Yegor Ligachev.

So the two approaches - collectivism and private initiative - will theoretically coexist, providing a kind of laboratory to see which works best. At this point, however, it's far from clear how easily entrepreneurial-minded farmers will be able to acquire land. If local collective-farm bureaucracies choose to be nasty, the process could be sticky indeed. There are already reports of farmers who chose the private route being reviled as ``kulaks'' and ``Rockefellers.'' The desire to make money and rise above the masses is still highly suspect in the communist heartland.

With these disincentives, it's a question, too, how many people will rush to seize the opportunities Gorbachev's reforms provide. In the Baltics, Armenia, Georgia, the rush has begun. But these regions are the exceptions.

Meanwhile, the political terrain is hilly as far as the eye can see. Reform will continue to alternate with compromise, as with the farm issue. Very likely, neither Gorbachev nor Ligachev wanted 100 percent responsibility for the shaky Soviet agricultural enterprise and are just as happy with a mixed outcome.

The same kind of reform/compromise mix is seen in the parliamentary elections coming up Sunday. They are sort of democratic and sort of not - with phenomena like Boris Yeltsin's populist appeal keeping everyone guessing.

Will cautious reform - in politics or on the farm - be enough to set the country right? In the Soviet context no one can say for sure. This ground, after all, has never been plowed before.

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