Soviet Economics

THIS week's unveiling of a new reform plan for the Soviet Union could culminate nearly a year of failed attempts to retool that country's economic engines. But it was a somewhat veiled unveiling, blurred by political tussling and a lack of detail. Political battling over reform has pitted President Mikhail Gorbachev, determined to remain a centrist, against the radicals led by the Russian Republic's Boris Yeltsin. It's Mr. Yeltsin's supporters who are trumpeting the new plan as a long-awaited blueprint for economic salvation. Mr. Gorbachev's response has been muted, reflecting his concerns over how reform is going to be implemented.

Yeltsin sees a sharp devolution of economic power to the republics. He has talked about the right of each republic to control the resources within its boundaries and sell its products to other republics at world prices. His words ring with longtime Russian resentments over the flow of investment and development to outlying republics. But the resentment works both ways: Many in Central Asia or the Baltics, for example, have felt that Moscow has sucked their resources toward the center.

Under these circumstances, economic devolution could accelerate political dissolution. Yeltsin hopes that something akin to a Soviet common market will evolve, but it will take consummate political skills to hold things together sufficiently to bring that about.

And it will take superb economic skills to implement the proposed scheme of privatization in a way that doesn't heighten people's awareness of chaos instead of brighten their hopes for the future. The plan lays out a vast program for selling off state-owned assets in coming months. But how do you sell something when there's no way of establishing its price?

American economist Paul Craig Roberts, who'll be lecturing in Moscow next week, suggests the Soviets give away to the public 30 to 40 percent of all shares in the country's businesses in order to create a ``social fund,'' paying dividends that people can use in the hard times ahead. Another 30 to 40 percent would be sold, and the remainder would stay in government hands as its source of revenue. Such ideas may sound deceptively simple, but they at least point toward other options than haphazard tinkering with prices before productive machinery is freed from the state's grasp.

Bread shortages in Moscow show how desperate economic conditions have become for the Soviet man on the street. His leaders must prove to him that this new plan offers more than rhetoric.

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