Shopping on state time: the Soviets crack down

After weeks of tough talk about ''discipline,'' the new Soviet leadership has , in one of its first economic decrees, stressed carrot before stick. At issue is the widespread Soviet practice of slipping away from the job during working hours to shop, to get clothes cleaned, hair cut, old furniture sold, or possessions repaired.

The stop-and-shop problem is particularly thorny in a nation nagged by labor shortages and by erratic supply of some goods and services. The complication is that in the Soviet Union the typical married couple consists of a husband and wife who both hold down full-time jobs.

Since the new year, police inspectors have made spot-checks in Moscow stores, stopping off-the-job customers and asking them for identification, place of employment, and their reasons for shopping instead of working. On Jan. 14, the Communist Party Politburo said the Soviet government would urgently consider the problem.

The impression among many Muscovites has been that a tougher approach in dealing with absent workers is on the way - a possibility not excluded by the preliminary decree outlined Jan. 18 in Pravda, and in line with the official news media's stress in recent weeks on the need to crack down on indiscipline.

And the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the police, was among those directed by the government to implement the decision published Jan. 18.

Yet the initial decree's emphasis was not on getting tough with off-the-job shoppers, but on such ideas as keeping stores open later, bringing services like cleaning or shoe-repair to the farm or factory floor, and generally addressing the reasons people feel a need to shop during working hours. As is normal in such cases, the decree stopped short of announcing specific or final policy moves.

Noting that ''much'' work time is lost in off-the-job shopping, the decree directed various authorities to implement by the end of March ''practical measures to instill proper order in enterprises . . . dealing with services to the population.''

How these directives are applied could afford one of the first reliable signals of domestic policy direction under new party leader Yuri Andropov.

So far, the leadership has moved first to convey a new tone and style of rule - tough and taciturn - while avoiding early, major policy changes.

The specific options raised in the Pravda summary of the decree Jan. 18 also built on suggestions that predated the transition. Some - such as the notion of setting up services on the factory floor - had already been initiated in at least some enterprises.

The main change hinted at in the decree would seem the reorganization of the working hours of shops and service outlets to better meet their customers' schedules - a task alluded to in some past media commentaries but never tackled head on.

The issue of off-the-job shopping, like other economic snags, is complex. Indeed, various senior officials suggest the new leadership's awareness of this is one factor in its wariness so far to embark on hasty or radical policy shifts.

As the decree suggests, stores and other services don't always keep hours that suit their customers. This, say Muscovites, applies particularly to repair shops and, even more particularly, to repair services involving home visits.

But an added hitch is that, especially in the case of some food products, consumers fear that vagary of supply means any delay in shopping could leave them staring at empty shelves. A related problem is that shopping often involves a long wait in line, not the kind of experience most workers relish after hours.

And, there are workers who go shopping in order to get out of work, rather than the other way around. They have done this for some time, according to laments in the Soviet media, protected from reprisal by the existence of labor shortages and by ''indiscipline'' in the economy.

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