Eastern bloc's economic council meets for first time in 13 years
Moscow — Now it's the East's turn at summitry. This week, the leaders of the ten members of the Council on Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) will converge here in Moscow for their first meeting in 13 years.
The occasion could hardly be more different from the just-completed Western economic summit in London.
Where the Western summit was bathed in television lights and followed by legions of reporters, this one will be shrouded in secrecy.
Where the Western leaders thrashed out their differences to a background of economic recovery, the Comecon leaders will wrestle privately over the problems of their mostly stagnant, centrally planned economies.
In particular, there are indications that even more economic planning is in the offing for Comecon.
There is speculation that the summit will produce a blueprint for greater ''integration'' of the economies of member states from now until the end of the century.
Each country (the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia , Romania, Bulgaria, Cuba, Mongolia, and Vietnam) will be drafting five-year economic plans to take into account not only its own economic resources and goals, but also how it can ''mesh'' its own economic activity with other states.
This, in theory, will lead to greater economic specialization in some countries - microelectronics in Bulgaria, for example, shipbuilding in Poland, or bus manufacturing in Hungary - with other countries providing a ready market instead of engaging in fruitless competition.
But tighter bloc-wide integration tends to be resisted by the East Europeans.
Most of them rely heavily on Soviet oil - usually at prices below the world market. This gives the Kremlin added leverage in pushing its own brand of central economic planning.
Already, Comecon countries conduct business with each other in non-convertible currencies (as opposed to ''hard'' currencies, like the American dollar, that can be freely traded).
Many of these countries also are enmeshed in a complicated system of trade agreements and protocols.
This financial web sometimes (as in the case of Cuba) provides generous Soviet subsidies in the form of higher prices for Cuban commodities, but at other times (as with East Germany and Hungary) insulate them from the rigors of market competition and inhibit efforts at economic streamlining.
Comecon is publicly lauded as an unqualified success.
For instance, Leonid Zamyatin, the Kremlin's chief spokesman, pointed out at a pre-summit press conference that unemployment will not preoccupy Comecon leaders at their summit - it does not exist in socialist countries, he noted.
Further, said Comecon official Nikolai Talyzin, interest rates charged between socialist countries are ''incomparably lower'' than those in the West, ''something around 4 to 5 percent.''
Yet a close reading of trade statistics, the Soviet press, and Western analyses paints a picture that is not as bright as Comecon officialdom would suggest.
Soviet consumers, in everyday conversation and in letters to newspapers, routinely complain of higher prices for various commodities, especially household goods.
And prices in Soviet markets that are not government-controlled - and there are substantial numbers of them - seesaw in ways that would horrify Western consumers. (One woman in Moscow, for example, tells of paying $5 for one tomato last winter.) Such price fluctuations are, of course, not reflected in official compilations.
A more serious problem than price is availability of goods.
Recently, Pravda, the official Soviet Communist Party newspaper, revealed that the Soviet population wastes 37 billion hours a year - about 190 hours for each adult - merely standing in line for goods or services. The figure has considerably worsened over the past 10 years.
Similar scarcities, along with widespread corruption and a thriving black market, are reported in other East bloc countries.