Kremlin wants to unclog bottlenecks, spur economy with free-market incentives

Soviet leaders have quietly decided to de-emphasize the recently begun police spot-checks for truant workers in favor of longer term moves to improve economic discipline, a senior official says.

The official, a prominent member of the Communist Party Central Committee, outlined what seems to be a two-stage Kremlin strategy to shore up the economy.

The first stage, he said in an hour-long interview, would include the piecemeal removal of ''unqualified'' personnel - whether government ministers, farm and factory managers, or ordinary workers. At the same time, the new leadership would focus on unclogging pervasive supply and transport bottlenecks in the economy.

The second stage would eventually involve more fundamental changes, he suggested, including some measures of the kind of economic decentralization pioneered in Hungary. Ultimately, the official said, the aim was to bring a degree of free-market rationale into the economy, effecting ''a transition to self-sufficiency'' in those farms and factories currently dependent on central subsidies.

On other issues, the official:

* Said he so far saw no fundamental ''improvement'' in United States arms-control policy, but that the growing danger of nuclear weaponry and a growing popular realization of this in the West left him ''optimistic'' on prospects for negotiated accords.

* Suggested little prospect for progress at talks on limiting European nuclear forces until after the West German elections March 6, which ''are dominating arms issues.'' He said he would be ''giving away no secrets'' in saying Moscow prefers a Social Democratic (SPD) victory, feeling the SPD arms policy was more ''realistic'' than that of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whom he said the US favored.

But the official added that he personally had doubts whether SPD would win. He also said that since ''promises aren't always kept'' in politics, Moscow was not overestimating the degree to which an SPD government would alter Bonn's arms-control stand.

* Confirmed earlier reports that Konstantin Chernenko, once considered a prime candidate to succeed the late Leonid Brezhnev, was currently handling ideological questions on the Central Committee's inner Secretariat and was chairing Secretariat sessions. But the official said Mr. Chernenko had relatively less input in a traditional further aspect of that portfolio - foreign policy issues.

Much of the interview dealt with Mr. Andropov's public campaign for improved ''economic discipline.'' The official said the leadership planned an ''energetic'' but measured bid to tighten accountability throughout the economy - ''from top to bottom.''

Key in the effort would be personnel changes. He said this did not mean a wholesale ''campaign'' of firings, but a gradual, sustained retirement or transfer of people unqualified for their present posts.

''It amounts to a strict demand that people be responsible [for their part in making the economy work]. . . . The idea is to see whether people are able, and release those who aren't.''

He cited the recent replacement of the minister of railways. ''Of course we know not all the problems were due to the minister. But the ministry had to be strengthened.'' He said the same applied to two other economic ministers replaced, and suggested further changes would follow.

He said this was part of a more general discipline drive that was the leadership's first economic priority. He acknowledeged that bureaucratic opposition and ''inertia'' are inevitable, but said in the dialectical process of history, such struggles are part and parcel of ''progress.''

Economic discipline, he said, ''is a particular area in which we can resolve many economic questions, without new investment.''

He said the leadership wanted to stress that ''the state and party apparatus should pay less attention to making new decisions than to implementing already existing ones.''

Asked to comment on a series of police checks for truant workers at various Moscow shops and other public places since the new year - which sparked fears among some Muscovites of a Draconian crackdown on even relatively minor ''violations of labor discipline'' - the official said:

''The checks had a propaganda aim. . . . A certain climate of opinion had to be created to let people know someone is keeping an eye on these issues. . . . These 'raids' that took place in grocery stores, movie theaters, were for public opinion, for the sake of the rumors they created.

''Two weeks ago there was a discussion at the Central Committee (Secretariat) . . . in which it was said the discipline issue must not be boiled down to this. Now, the more important aspect is to create a general sense of discipline and accountability'' in the economy.

The official said the party leadership was meanwhile weighing deeper ''strategic'' changes in the economy. He said that within the Secretariat, this task was chiefly the province of Nikolai Ryzhkov, recently named to the body.

The official interviewed made clear that overnight changes in economic policy were not in the cards. In the longer run, however, two areas were among those getting priority:

* The ''relationship among various branches of the economy, for instance between light [consumer] and heavy industry.''

* ''The idea of giving more freedom to individual enterprises. There is the example of Hungary, for instance, or the GDR (East Germany). I think that we will borrow aspects of these experiences in one way or another.''

He suggested one early test of moves toward gradual decentralization of the economy could come in the near future - as a Brezhnev-era ''food program'' was implemented. The program envisaged a measure of widened automomy for individual state and collective farms under newly created regional ''agro-industrial'' councils, although there would be no radical departure from the Soviet system of centralized planning.

The official said it had been decided these new bodies would begin operating nationwide by the end of February. While not referring explicitly to reported snags in early efforts at the changeover in the Georgian Republic, he remarked:

''The most important thing . . . is that old methods of [centralized] management must not be carried over, because the new units are based on the idea of more freedom for state and collective farms.''

Asked to comment on a hint Jan. 31 from Mr. Andropov that some ''disproportions'' in the heavily subsidized system of Soviet consumer prices would be corrected, he said that the prices of some products, ''metal goods, for instance,'' were indeed being raised.

The increase has not been announced, but Moscow shops have since Feb. 1 raised the prices of such items as zippers and irons, shoppers say. Phonograph records and cotton products have also been affected.

But the official added that ''of course, there has as yet been no change in principle'' - suggesting, as did Mr. Andropov, that there would be no early, general shift away from price subsidies.

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