Gorbachev's big problem: lack of raw materials to fuel revival

``Long live the holiday of labor,'' read the big red sign next to the high-rise apartment blocks as worthy Muscovites headed for the factories last Saturday for a day of unpaid work to mark the 115th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin. Behind the bold slogans, however, the latest Soviet economic figures paint a less rosy picture.

New Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev has made it the prime objective of his administration to get the sluggish Soviet economy into shape, reduce the embarrassing dependence on imports from the West, notably of United States grain, and close the widening technology gap.

But the enormity of this task is being hindered more and more by a rot at the roots: The vital, easily accessible raw materials that have fueled Soviet economic development since the revolution are running out.

Production of oil and coal, which hit a long-awaited peak in mid-1983 and stagnated at the same level for months thereafter, is clearly on the decline. Oil production for the first three months of this year was 147 million tons, still a substantial amount but well down from the 1983 figure of 156 million tons.

Coal production has been falling steadily. The first quarter of this year has also seen a decline in steel production, a development that led the Politburo to level severe criticism at Ferrous Metals Minister Ivan Kazanets.

The ``communist subbotnik,'' or unpaid working Saturday, was the Old Guard's answer to the economic problems. Originally it was observed annually on the Saturday closest to April 22, Lenin's birthday. But whenever the indicators fell too far behind, a new ``subbotnik'' would be held to mark another anniversary: the revolution, the war victory -- whatever came first to mind and closest to hand.

Mr. Gorbachev has realized that ``more of the same'' is not the solution for the malaise affecting Soviet industry. Nor does the answer lie in curing the alcohol abuse that regularly keeps workers away from the factories and makes many of them incapable even when they are at their workbenches. Addiction to vodka is a symptom, not a cause.

The much-vaunted ``economic experiment'' launched by the late President Yuri Andropov and fostered by Gorbachev is designed to provide motivation. It provides cash bonuses, vacations, and better apartments to top workers and allows managers some degree of autonomy in running their factories.

Official commentators say the experiment is working.

But the statistics show that the rate of economic growth fell dramatically during the brief 13-month rule of the late Konstantin Chernenko. At the end of March 1984, Soviet industrial production was 4.9 percent up on the year before. Growth in the 12 months since then has been only 2 percent.

Some Western economic experts who monitor Soviet industry say Mr. Andropov had instilled fear of a return to Stalinism. In those days, turning up late at the office was a criminal offense punishable by a labor camp sentence.

Chernenko's more lax rule was seen as an excuse to slip back into ``Brezhnev days and lazy ways,'' as one Western diplomat put it.

Gorbachev has made clear that the ``labor discipline'' slogan is back to stay. Many sedate managers have been abruptly ousted from soft office seats across the country.

But any real ``turn onto the rails of intensive development,'' as Gorbachev described his objective in his inaugural address to the Communist Party Central Committee last month, could be made impossible by erosion of the base of raw materials.

The latest industrial statistics showed that production levels of car tires, refrigerators, cement, synthetic fabrics, and plastics were all down from a year ago.

The newspaper Soviet Russia last week lambasted managers at the country's biggest oil field, at Tyumen in western Siberia, for failing to prepare adequately for ``the day when the fountains of oil became fewer and extraction more difficult.'' It revealed that a large number of senior men in Tyumen, the source of two-thirds of Soviet oil, had been sacked for incompetence, inefficiency, or downright dishonesty.

In fact, Moscow is not about to run out of anything, not absolutely. Siberia still holds incalculable resources of untapped oil as well as lignite coal, endless timber, gold, and other minerals. But they are not easy to get at.

The difficulties of extracting these reserves in the inhospitable climatic conditions and transporting them the vast distances to the industrial European part of the country are enormous.

So far, only gas has proved economically viable, with building of the controversial pipeline to Western Europe. Exploiting the rest of that storehouse is Gorbachev's most pressing need.

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