Soviets eye free-market efficiency

The Kremlin is giving increasingly serious thought to injecting some free-market efficiency into the nation's cumbersome planned economy. Senior officials interviewed recently rule out a rapid, wholesale departure from the current centrally planned economic system.

Indeed, while they say final decisions are yet to be made, the officials suggest Moscow will stop well short of the degree of loosened central control or private-sector activity adopted in Hungary, the most venturesome economic innovator in the Eastern bloc.

But the officials say the Kremlin is actively weighing more measured moves toward reorganization of the economy - ''borrowing aspects'' of the experience of Hungary, East Germany, and other East European states.

The process is portrayed as something of a ''second track'' in the new leadership's economic policy - the first track being Communist Party chief Yuri Andropov's early public emphasis on more ''discipline'' throughout the economy.

If these moves are carried through, they could represent the most serious bid at economic reform since the efforts of the late Premier Alexei Kosygin in the 1960s. His efforts were ultimately derailed.

Here are some of the options being looked at, according to officials interviewed:

* Awarding greater autonomy to individual farm and factory managers, and minimizing the meddling of central planners and ministries in how overall targets are met.

* Improving the ''planning mechanism.'' The idea is to apply indexes that reward quality over quantity, technological innovation over sluggishness, efficiency rather than overkill in choice of production inputs. (Such efforts are not startlingly new, nor have they been startlingly successful so far.)

* Moving toward use of self-sufficiency rather than mere plan fulfillment as a measure of an enterprise's performance. Khozrashchot, the principle is dubbed in Russian. The idea is for an individual enterprise to pay its own way if it is to get central credit and other benefits.

* Phasing out some of the more skewed of the nation's centrally set prices, bringing them more into line with forces of supply and demand. (Yet officials suggest prices would still be centrally set.)

* Improving use of one ''market'' lever that has been around for a long time here: wage and other incentives for workers who work best. One suggested move is greater disincentives for workers who work worst.

* Expanding the role of ''cooperative'' food outlets. These outlets are better stocked than state shops but have higher prices. They run on ''a khozrashchot basis'' already, but so far are virtually limited to rural areas. (Among personnel changes since Mr. Andropov became party chief was the replacement last month of the head of the country's consumer co-op system.)

Some such economic changes have been in the wind since at least the later period of Leonid Brezhnev's 18-year tenure as Soviet leader. But now, as then, talk of economic reform may prove easier than pushing it through the bureaucracy , or than overcoming what Soviet sources suggest is abiding concern at the loosened political and ideological control that is implied in any genuine economic decentralization.

Soviet officials have long felt that something must be done about the nation's meticulously planned, woefully wasteful economic machine. The official news media have become steadily more acrid in highlighting inefficiency, indolence, and inertia. A Pravda piece last June went so far as to suggest that the only Soviet industry that was truly competitive internationally was arms manufacturing.

What Andropov hopes to add, a ranking official suggests, is a new ''but not frantic'' momentum to the search for innovation, and a coherent long-term strategy to what has often looked suspiciously like a process of trial and error.

Finally, Andropov is portrayed as intent on battling the kind of bureaucratic inertia that has undone even selective bids for change.

An example: In 1979, Mr. Brezhnev oversaw introduction of a new planning index designed to stress quality over quantity in industry. The move got largely swallowed by the bureaucracy.

Only acrobatically selective citation from Andropov's statements since he assumed office can provide a neat vision of the content and form of intended economic change.

In a major article in the party ideological journal Kommunist last month, the Soviet leader sounded a bit like all things to all cadres. He said the experts must work more urgently on ''improving and reorganizing the economic mechanism, forms, and methods of management.'' He then added: ''Measures should be carefully prepared and realistic.''

He suggested the need for greater latitude for local managers. Then he added this should be secured in concert with the nation's ''single system of scientific guidance, planning, and management.''

Soviet officials maintain the balancing act reflects not wishy-washiness in the new leadership, but a sense that only a carefully thought-out rejigging of the economy, avoiding overly radical or hasty change, will stick.

Indeed, the ultimately shortcircuited bids at change under former leader Nikita Khrushchev, and in the 1960s under Premier Kosygin, would seem to prove the point.

Against this background, the first visible sign of what kinds of changes the new leadership seeks may involve a Brezhnev-era program the Western media have largely managed to ignore.

This is the ''food program'' adopted some six months before Mr. Brezhnev's death. It involves a cautious decentralization in agriculture.

A key element in the program is a batch of some 3,000 newly created ''district agro-industrial units'' - RAPOs, in their Russian acronym. The RAPOs became fully operative, at least on paper, at the end of February 1983.

The consensus Western reading has been that the food program is pretty tame stuff - so far leaving key decisions, like pricing, with central officials, and essentially adding new layers of bureaucracy to an unchanged agricultural system.

The official Soviet portrait of the program, especially as it has been reflected in the past few months, is that various decisions involving investment , organization, planting, harvests, and the like have devolved to local and district managers, and that central bodies will meanwhile insist more and more that farms operate ''on a khozrashchot basis.''

Some ranking officials suggest further that the food program is ''a start not an end,'' and that under more general economic changes now being pondered, additional prerogatives could be given to local bodies.

Whatever, the food program offers a glimpse at both prospects and problems with any genuine ''reform.''

The Kremlin has publicly signaled its determination to conquer bureaucratic snags and ensure that those rights given to local officials and managers actually get used.

One member of the party Central Committee remarked in an interview last month: ''The most important thing . . . is that old methods of management must not be carried over.''

But this, in itself, may be an important test:

Official Soviet statements and commentaries suggest the changeover to RAPOs has been slow - partly because central officials have dragged their heels, but, more discouragingly, also because some local managers don't seem too excited about their new responsibilities.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is said to be weighing options for wider economic change.

Officials say one key actor is Nikolai Ryzhkov, a former top figure in the gargantuan state planning organization, Gosplan, who moved late last year to the party Central Committee's Secretariat as head of a reorganized economic department considering issues of economic ''strategy.''

Ultimately, a ranking official said privately March 18, it is safe to assume that resultant changes will be aired at a session of the full Central Committee on questions of planning and management. He said the meeting was not imminent, but declined to suggest when it would occur.

It was the late Mr. Brezhnev, in a major address in February 1981, who cited Hungary and East Germany as useful examples of economic innovation, and added: ''Comrades, let us study the experience of the fraternal (East-bloc) countries more closely and utilize it more broadly.''

Shortly thereafter, senior officials say, a formal committee was set up, chaired by the head of Gosplan, to study East European economic reform. The group's first session, the sources say, was about a year ago, that is, some eight months before Brezhnev's passing. (The first public mention of the group came in Pravda March 14 of this year.)

A ranking official remarked March 16: ''Merely by reading Andropov's article in Kommunist, it should be very clear we are (still) not satisfied with the current state of planning.''

Next: East Europe's creeping capitalism

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