Soviet economy shows further signs of sputtering
Moscow — One new factory waited four years for repairs to its roof that took only days to do . . . . An entire engine-repair factory, officially certified as built and operating, was discovered to exist only on paper. A Pravda correspondent who went to the site found an elderly guard with an ancient rifle, a fence, and a large hole. . . .
A workman wrote to Pravda saying he spent days sitting idle at his contruction plant because raw materials were not delivered in time. . . .
The gigantic Soviet economy, second biggest in the world after the United States, is beset by red tpe, shortages, transportation woes, and central planning. Its growth rates have fallen to the lowest since World War II.
And the long-awaited bluepring for the next five-year plan, just spread over six pages in the press here, acknowledges sharp limits to future growth.
"This is the age of scarcity for the Soviets, and they know it," comments one Western economic analyst here. "They are short of labor, of capital, and of recoverable reserves of energy and materials."
The five-year blueprint is a modest documetn, reflecting lowered expectations , slower growth, more realistic thinking, especially in the much-watched areas of oil, meat, and grain.
Yet Western experts detech no real commitment to reform or decentralization. Both could threaten party control. The Breznev Politburo still steers clear of them.
The long-suffering Soviet consumer, standing in line for hours for meager and erratic supplies of everyday items from shoes to shirts, again comes second to heavy industry.
Despite promises by Soviet leader Leonid Breznev to the party's Central Committee in October, the 1981-1985 guidelines call for a growth rate in the consumer field of between 27 and 29 percent over the period --a target Westerners doubt can be met.
Targets set in 1975 for the five-year plan ending this year were often scaled back as reality overtook optimism. Analysts expect the same process over the next five years.
"One way to 'win" is to change the rules of the game," remarks one. "But growth is now so slow in many areas that planners find they can't even change the rules fast enough these days."
Defense spending is not mentioned int he new guidelines and is expected to grow as before. The Kremlin has China to worry about, vast expenditures in Afghanistan, Cuba, Ethiopia, Angola, and elsewhere, as well as the crisis in Poland.
One way to judge the slowdown in the overall economy is to look at industrial growth. In $: 6 it was set to reach 36 percent by this year. ACtual performance: 24 percent. The target by 1985: 26 to 28 percent -- much less than the target of 975.
Western analysts see trouble ahead for oil production. The Soviet Union remains the world's largest producer (though it is behind Saudi Arabia as an exporter).
In a controversial study, the US Central Intelligence Agency predicted Soviet oil output would peak and then fall by 1985, forcing Moscow to compete with the West in world markets. The latest guidelines seem to confirm part of this prediction.
Last year the Soviets produced 586 milv lion tons (11.72 million barrels a day). This year: about 606 million tons (12.1 million barrels a day). Next year: 610 million tons -- yet by 1985 the new plan predicts only between 620 and 645 million tons (12.j to 12.9 million barrels a day).
All growth comes from the giant Samotlor field in western Siberia. Unless big new discoveries ar emade, oil production could indeed peak and level off, observers here day. The grim state of detente means the Soviets have no early hope of more US technology. They are short of thousands of skilled drillers. They have to drill deeper down and further to the north with every passing year.one result is that Moscow is pushing natural gas as a substitute: Gas output is to jump 50 percent by 1985 (to between 600 and 640 billion cubic meters).
But Moscow may well have to cut back oil exports to the West -- exports it depends on to earn hard currency. It is unlikely to cut back on commitments to Eastern Europe (about 80 million tons a year through 1985).
As for meat, the guidelines call for a jump to between 17 and 17.5 million tons for every year between 1981 and 1985. Western experts shake their heads and say it just can't be done. Last year meat reached 15.k million tons. Thsi year it will barely make 15 million. To meet the 1985 target means everything would have to go right: weather, harvests, soybean crushing (for feed), livestock growth. It hasn't happened yet. Westerners don't think it can happen now, given Soviet weather, central planning, and transport problems.
The new plan predicts an annual average grain harvest of between 238 and 243 million tons between now and 1985. Yet the county has never once reached 238 million tons (the record is 2327 million, reached three years ago). It has had two poor harvests in a row.
Agricultural investment is large, but rising very slowly now, as defense and industry compete for available funds.
"The entire blueprint is a political document which cannot admit to no growth , but which realistically sees slow growth," one Western source sums up.
"All Soviet plans assume that everthing goes well every year. But a single poor winter, one bad harvest, a grain embargo, transport foul-ups -- and they begin to unravel."