Yugoslavia counts on consumers in new stab at economic reform

Communist Yugoslavia is making major structural changes in its economy - and expecting consumers to do the kind of belt-tightening that has plunged Poland into violent domestic disorder three times.

But Yugoslav authorities are confident that nothing like the Polish reactions is likely here. They are counting on the country's economic capability and its own brand of democratization, which has long set Yugoslavia apart from the communist-bloc states.

This is, in fact, the Yugoslavs' second substantial economic reform. The first failed to halt two years of headlong inflation, or to check the escalation of the country's foreign debts and setbacks in Western trade.

The contrasts between Yugoslavia and the East bloc were noted in a Monitor interview with Kiro Gligorov, long a leading figure both in the Communist Party and the Yugoslav government. Mr. Gligorov is also a member of the high-level task force set up some time ago to reconcile federal interests and republican rivalries in a new economic strategy.

The first report from the task force was largely responsible for the stabilization program adopted at the party's congress, June 26-29. The task force will soon make recommendations for agriculture. Others are to follow on housing and the development of the communes - the basic units of the self-management system.

Not being an East-bloc state, Yugoslavia is not a direct target of American and European Community sanctions against the East bloc stemming from martial law in Poland. But it is feeling their effect as Western banks become more reluctant to lend money to communist states.

It both surprises the Yugoslavs and pains them that they are bracketed with ''the East.'' They prize their nonalignment and are sure they can carry through a program, even one with unpalatable aspects for consumers, that none of the East Europeans would dare try.

Mr. Gligorov brushed off any coupling of Yugoslavia with Poland or Romania, another bloc country dangerously in economic red ink, either in the matter of foreign debts - though Yugoslavia's debt is a formidable $20 billion - or in terms of stability. ''Our situation is not to be compared,'' he said.

''In the matter of foreign currency, Yugoslavia has a totally different capacity and capability from anyone in the bloc. We were and are always capable of servicing our debts and with resources which these other countries do not enjoy.

''We meet our obligations very promptly and shall continue to do so. We have no thought of rescheduling.''

To support the argument, Mr. Gligorov listed:

* Remittances from a million Yugoslav workers in Western Europe, sent home to accounts in Yugoslav banks, which add up to $4.5 billion yearly.

* Tourism, which last year netted $1.7 billion and is estimated to reach $2 billion through 1982.

* Private hard-currency accounts totaling $8 billion in banks here (at 10 percent interest in their own currency), on which there seems no tendency to withdraw despite the seriousness of the country's economic troubles.

* A balance-of-payments deficit brought down from $3.7 billion in 1979 to $ 750 million last year. The current six-month showing suggests that it can be wiped out by the end of 1982.

''The OECD (Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development),'' said Mr. Gligorov, ''recognizes Yugoslavia is in position to make the necessary structural changes and to take the strictest corrective measures. . . .''

Officials are braced for some stiff public reaction as the reform based on severe ''objective economic criteria'' sets new premiums on efficiency and productivity.

More regard for worker self-management is promised, but with it will come a new balance between workers' rights and their obligations. Slackers will have to take the rap; so will inefficient enterprises.

Getting inflation down to 10 percent by 1985 - before Phase 2 of the reform, which is to concentrate on energy reorganization - is bound to affect consumers for a time. Its success will depend on public understanding. The government believes it will have that, provided the reform is properly applied and the longer-term goal is fully explained.

''We simply have to stop high living beyond our resources,'' a top leader said. ''There is no other way.''

There was a fierce argument over centralist and decentralist issues before the congress adopted its resolution on the economic strategy. But, said Alexander Grlickov, for many years the party's leading ideologist, ''The fear of the Eastern alternative is so great that this wise agreement was adopted although there was so much disagreement.''

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