Kremlin's latest worry: empty meat counters

Dusty, empty meat counters. Butter rationed in some areas to one kilo (2.2 pounds) per customer. A disappointing grain harvest this year, 23 percent below target, the third bad year in the last five.

And new public criticisms of food policies by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev himself -- at a time when industrial growth has fallen to the slowest rate since World War II.

All this gives graphic evidence that, 63 years after Lenin installed the world's first communist state in 1917, the Soviet Union is still unable to provide enough meat, milk, and other food for its 264 million people.

Nor is it able to prevent industrial and energy slowdowns -- and the sudden resignation of the most experienced manager of the Soviet economy, Premier Alexei Kosygin, is an additional blow.

Mr. Kosygin's departure, announced by Mr. Brezhnev Oct. 23, deprives the Kremlin of much-needed expertise (see Page 14). The implications of food shortages and industrial lag for the West and for the Soviet people are wide, but they need to be viewed in perspective.

The Soviets will have to scramble to try to buy more grain, especially corn, in world markets already worried by poor results in Australia, Argentina, and Canada.

The Soviet consumer will paradoxically find more meat in the shops between now and the end of the year because farmers will slaughter livestock for lack of grain to feed it. But in the depth of the Russian winter, early next year, severe meat shortages are likely.

Yet the food shortages, and the just-announced industrial slowdown to only 4 percent of growth this year, do not necessarily mean severe worker unrest leading to strikes similar to those in Poland. Nor do they mean basic changes in Soviet military or diplomatic strategies abroad, at least for now.

The Kremlin makes sure that senior party and government officials, the 4 million-man armed forces, and key workers in steel and chemical plants, on oil and gas rigs, and in coal mines are well fed.

Party control is tight throughout the country. Trade unions are under strict control. The Kremlin tolerates no sign of any "independent" unions on the Polish model.

Officials have jammed Russian-language shortwave broadcasts on the Voice of America, the BBC, and other Western stations to try to stop the average Soviet worker from hearing any dangerous ideas from Warsaw and Gdansk.

Also, in the Soviet Union, food has always been short. It was so under the czars. It remains a fact of life today.

Mr. Brezhnev has publicly criticized agriculture before. In 1978 he devoted an entire address to the Communist Party Central Committee to the issue. Now, at the latest Central Committee meeting Oct. 21, he has done so again. Little happened after the first speech -- and there seems little sign of radical new thinking in his latest criticisms.

Sources in Moscow largely discount reports of strikes in the auto-making cities of Gorky and Togliatti earlier this year. Both official and dissident sources report local holidays and trade union meetings but no strikes.

Over the long term, the Soviet party stands indicted by its failure to overcome food shortages. Soviet officials blame poor and variable weather. They say each Soviet citizen eats 56 kilos of meat a year (less than half the US figure) but the statistic seems overly inflated for political reasons. Canada and Scandinavia are also in northern latitudes, but manage to grow grain efficiently.

It remains true that one-third of basic food supplies in the Soviet Union still comes from one-acre private plots allowed to state and collective farmers: 60 percent of potatoes, 30 percent of milk and eggs, smaller percentages of meat.

Nikolai Baibakov, the state planning committee chief, tried to hide the smallness of this year's harvest when he spoke to the rubberstamp legislature, or Supreme Soviet, in the ornate Great Hall of the Kremlin Oct. 22. He simply said the average grain harvest over the last five years had gone up 12 percent. Westerners quickly worked out that this meant a harvest this year of only 181 million tons, barely above Australia's 179 million tons, and a full 54 million tons below target.

As Mr. Brezhnev had admitted to the Central Committee the day before, only 1976 and 1978 were good grain years in the last five- year period. Decentralizing and encouraging local initiative would risk party control from the center. So the conservative, elderly Politburo has called for more investment and more planning.

It has made one significant move: promoting the relatively young agricultural expert Mikhail Gorbachev, 49, to full membership in the Politburo. The move dramatizes the Kremlin's intentions to solve agricultural problems. Mr. Gorbachev is the youngest man on the Politburo by 11 years -- and he has one of the toughest jobs.

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