Soviet party congress draws to gloomy close

The gloomiest Soviet communist congress of the Leonid Brezhnev era is all but over, portraying a troubled, introspective superpower hoping for West European help in heading off an economic crisis.

President Brezhnev's headline-grabbing bid to rescue detente with Washington as well is seen by most diplomats here as sincere.

But the major congress addresses by Mr. Brezhnev and his prime minister, theoretically charting policy for the next five years, suggested the Kremlin was allowing for the possibility of continued problems with Washington.

Even ties with West Europe -- one intended centerpiece is an enormous joint project to pump Siberian natural gas to West Germany, France, and other European customers --could fall victim to the more immediate crisis in Poland.

Mr. Brezhnev clearly hopes not. But he, in effect, told the congress that if the power of the Polish Communist party were much further eroded by the unrest there, Moscow and its East-bloc partners were prepared to do something about it.

"Let no one doubt our common determination to secure our interests and defend the gains of socialism" in Poland, he said.

This and an array of other, domestic policy challenges stand against a background of uncertainty over the who, when, and how to leadership transition from the 16-year-old Brezhnev era. The Moscow congress has served as a reminder that Mr. Brezhnev, President and party chief and official cult figure, is aging and infirm.

Soviet television abruptly cut from live coverage of the congress only minutes into Mr. Brezhnev's lengthy keynote speech Feb. 23, evidently concerned he might offer millions of Soviet viewers a disturbingly vulnerable image of Kremlin power.

The transition question will be addressed -- more -- in the last major act of the congress, the traditional announcement of updated Soviet leadership lists. This is expected March 3.

But the policy portion of this fourth Brezhnev gathering of the party faithful -- that is to say, the reports by Mr. Brezhnev and his protege and surrogate for economic affairs, Prime Minister Nikolai Tikhonov -- is over.

The bright red banners hoisted to celebrate the congress hang tired and dingy now, victims of a week of Moscow winter and Moscow car exhaust. some 5,000 Soviet delegates --eign states, parties, leftist or guerrilla groups --of this nation's problems yet offered by the Brezhnev regime.

A scouring of speeches at past party congresses, an exercise roughly akin to reading the New York City phone book backward, makes the picture seem yet gloomier.

There is far less of the underpinning optimism of earlier Brezhner congresses. Gone are last session's effusive tributes to detente which permitted a relative deemphasis of endemic economic woes. Gone is the confidence --West might help sort out the economy.

"On the international plane," the jowly, thick-browed Soviet President said near the start of his keynote address, "the period under review has been rough and complicated."

On the home front, Mr. Brezhnev -- and Prime Minister Tikhonov four days later --spoke of an economy strained by wastage of finite resources, inefficiency, corruption, and mismanagement.

The economy, they said, had reached an age of limits. It could no longer count on seemingly bottomless energy, labor, and other inputs. This vast nations was still plenty rich enough to prosper; but only, the Soviet leaders suggested, if the minutely planned economy started working as it should.

Amid persistent Soviet denials or Western predictions that problems lie ahead for the world's top oil-producing country, energy was singled out for special attention.

The oil goes not only for domestic use, but also to supply the Soviets' East European satellites, to provide needed hard-currency earnings from abroad, and to coddle politically favored neighbors like Indian and Finland.

Sounding a little like a Georgian of the non-Soviet variety named Jimmy Carter, Leonid Brezhnev called on his nation to save such "nonrenewable resources."

And he threw his weight behind a top-priority drive to develop Siberian gas -- for domestic use and for export -- as well as less immediately promissing complements like nuclear reactors, coal and synthetic fuel from coal. This last idea had been raised several years earlier but dropped.

On agriculture, a perennial problem child not visibly helped by recent bad harvests and a partial US grain embargo, Messrs. Brezhnev and Tikhonov also had specific suggestions. Among them: better distribution of fertilizer, more storage facilities, and more rational decisions on what crops to grow where.

Finally, the Kremlin leaders took a charge at poorly supplied store shelves and shifted the Soviet consumer -- pampered two congresses ago, then relatively shortchanged last congress -- back onto center stage. He has in effect promised more meat, in short supply lately, and generally higher-quality goods.

The problem, and potential harbinger of greater problems, is that neither Mr. Brezhnev nor MR. Tikhonov offered a concrete or coherent strategy for achieving all this. That would mean challenging vested party and bureaucratic interests, something Mr. Brezhnev has consistently seemed disinclined to risk.

Workers were exhorted to work; managers to manage; and the economy to "economize." Designers of key projects like the Trans-Siberian Railroad and a complex for making nuclear reactors, both of which looked much better on paper than in fact, were in effect urged on to greater things.

But both speakers stopped short of announcing a fundamental retooling of the unwieldy apparatus that helped create the economic problems in the first place.

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