What the Kremlin isn't saying about food is plenty

The Soviet Union's chronic food shortages appear to be getting worse. The nation's food supplies were a main preoccupation of Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev's speech to the Communist Party Central Committee Nov. 16. Concern about foodalso loomed large when planning chief Nikolai Baibakov gave the opening address to the fall session of the Supreme Soviet (parliament) Nov. 17.

But it was what the two men did not say, as much as what they did say, that indicates the depth of the problem.

Indeed, Mr. Baibakov told the 1,500 delegates assembled in the Kremlin meeting hall little that they did not already know.

Most striking was his failure to report any final figure for this year's grain harvest. Soviet sources have confirmed US Department of Agriculture estimates that the crop will come in at 170 million tons or less, 66 million under target.

That will make it the third poor harvest in three years and the worst since 1975, when a disastrous 140.1 million tons forced mass slaughtering of animals so the nation would have enough bread to eat.

Baibakov said production was off in grain, steel, iron, and coal, but gave no production figures.

The fall session of parliament traditionally is given over to an economic review and consideration of the next year's budget. The delegates usually learn at least how much electricity, oil, and gas were produced during the year. But the figures sprinkling Baibakov's speech had about as much meaning as random Scrabble letters.

''That could be an indication things are even worse than they appear,'' said a Western observer familiar with Supreme Soviet proceedings.

''It may mean they are dealing with something very hot and they are more reluctant than usual to let the figures out.''

Defense spending was the only concrete figure given during the first day of the two-day session. It was unchanged for 1982 at 17.05 billion rubles ($23.8 billion).

Western experts discount this figure, which is only one-tenth the United States military budget of $222 billion. Much military spending is hidden under such titles as scientific research, and the military borrow liberally from the civilian economy, claiming the best-quality products.

The grain figure was also kept secret by President Leonid Brezhnev in his speech to a plenary session of the Communist Party Central Committee the day before parliament opened.

But he admitted the food problem is as intractable as ever, despite repeated efforts during the history of the Soviet state to increase production.

''The food problem is, economically and politically, the central problem of the five-year plan,'' Brezhnev said.

He blamed drought as part of the problem, but stressed that ''this cannot and should not shake our determination to achieve a speedy and stable growth of food production.''

Soviets say the food situation is far worse than it was even 10 years ago, with meat posing the greatest difficulties. Apart from the grain shortfalls, there is no ready explanation for why the situation should be so bad.

Shoppers say where once they could buy lean, boneless cuts, now they must take what they can get, and everything is included in the 2 kg (4 pounds) of meat allowed per customer. Beef is available only in small pieces for stroganoff; pork is more widely sold, but one must wait up to an hour in line to buy it.

In Moscow there is also rationing of butter - half a kilo (1 lb.) per customer, and one chicken. One can go to the end of the line and wait again, but that seems to be too time-consuming for most shoppers.

Moscow is the best-supplied of the Soviet cities, and most goods are available if one is willing to pay high prices and wait. In the provinces, reports say, the supply situation is much worse. Even in a center such as Leningrad, meat is much harder to get.

Those with money can go to farmers' markets, where more is to be had, and pay two or three times the state store prices, or apply to the burgeoning black market.

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