East bloc to look at its economic problems. Gorbachev's reform ideas are likely to figure in Comecon meeting

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will not be present at the high-level East-bloc economic conference that opens here today. But his latest views on the necessity of economic change in the Soviet Union will doubtless be heard.

The meeting of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) is at the prime-ministerial level, which means that the Soviet Union will be represented by Nikolai Tikhonov and not by the younger, more dynamic Mr. Gorbachev.

In a speech earlier this month, Gorbachev said that market influences must be given freer rein and enterprises more autonomy in the Soviet economy. The new Soviet price system calls for change. He complained about the backward state of the Soviet economy, admitting such deficiencies as the lag in everyday Soviet consumer services.

The ideas Gorbachev outlined in this speech to Communist Party officials and industrial managers on June 11 in Moscow aroused great interest and even excitement among the East Europeans.

For the Soviet Union's serious problems with industrial growth (both output and quality), its need to make more efficient use of existing facilities instead of building expensive new ones, and its need to halt chronic misuse and waste of materials are not alone a Soviet problem. They are common to the whole bloc.

The Hungarians, whose reform goes far beyond anything that Gorbachev has advocated, will be here. Though they don't say it out loud, they obviously feel their ideas of ``market socialism'' could be beneficially applied to problems faced by other Comecon nations.

But Gorbachev made no hint of moving toward Hungary's pragmatic attitude of a burgeoning private sector for consumer needs and official inducements to encourage people to go into it.

Although Polish officials also have ambivalent feelings about the Hungarian reform, they clearly welcomed Gorbachev's ``reformist'' speech. Poland's leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, alluded to the speech in a talk to a party economic conference. Poland's economic reform -- now in its third year -- was ``irreversible,'' he said, because it is vitally needed to recover from the present situation. Moreover, reform was becoming ``an established feature in the construction of socialism,'' he said. This was demonstrated by the efforts made ``by the Soviet Union and other socialist countries to promote economic dynamics,'' the general added.

The East Europeans will be waiting to see if Gorbachev's efforts to revitalize his own economy will spill over into more flexible Soviet attitudes within Comecon, especially in Soviet demands for ever more closer integration with the East bloc.

Hungarians, Poles, and others are none too happy as things stand. And the questions on this week's agenda are primarily concerned with what is called ``a new phase'' of integration. In part, Comecon's Moscow headquarters seeks a boost in general efficiency.

The East bloc feels it must develop advanced technology that will make it less dependent on Western goods. Areas listed by the Polish daily Zycie Warszawy were microelectronics, automatization, biotechnologies, industrial, robots, and the intensified production of raw materials. It is generally acknowledged that in each of these fields the West or Japan is ahead of the Soviet Union.

``Our community [Comecon],'' Zycie Warszawy asserted, ``has all the necessary conditions to cope with the challenge to make itself independent of Western restrictions.''

But has it? There are difficulties.

Rescheduling of Poland's $12 billion of old debts to Western countries is apparently imminent. But the Poles declare that they will sign only if fresh Western credits will then become available.

And although many United States sanctions have been lifted, the most crucial remain in place: the suspension of most-favored nation tariff treatment and the ban on commercial credits.

The Poles meantime are casting around -- so far without significant success -- for at least $1 billion this year in fresh loans. These, they say, will help them acquire technology and modern equipment with which to produce competitive goods that will sell on Western markets and thus help them pay their debts.

``Without some help from outside, we are doomed to failure,'' said one of the less optimistic -- but possibly more realistic -- senior officials here. That help, it was made clear, could only come from the West.

Thus, this Comecon session looks likely to be high on stocktaking of Comecon performance so far and an identification of its problems on the way to the 1990s and the year 2000. But -- rather like Gorbachev's speech -- it will probably be short on the actual means and effective solutions that might remedy the technology gap which is at the heart of all the difficulties.

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