Since his accession to the Soviet leadership, much has been made of Mikhail Gorbachev's plans for economic ``reform.'' These plans have generated very high expectations both in the Soviet Union and abroad. The Soviet economy is in severe straits. Virtually all economic indicators point to a slowdown. There is even stagnation in many economic sectors. But it is hard to find any time in Soviet history when the economy was not beset by serious disorders and problems. Even the most productive periods of development in the course of Soviet history were accompanied by hardships, shortages, and difficulties.
Some Western experts speak of a ``crisis'' the Soviet economy. However, because the Soviet-style economy has no historical precedence, any generalizations or predictions of crisis should be taken with a grain of salt.
Still, the present Soviet elite is, without doubt, acutely concerned about the condition of the nation's economy. But this anxiety has nothing to do with popular dissatisfaction. The Soviet population, so inured to hardship, displays almost infinite patience.
Rather, the members of the Soviet elite are anxious because they feel they are about to forfeit their position as a military superpower, as the perceived equal to the United States. This is a theme that undoubtedly will be in the back of the minds of delegates at the Communist Party Congress, which begins Feb. 25. The chief purpose of this once-every-five-years event is to approve the next five-year plan.
Soviet leaders know that their system cannot withstand a full-scale technological arms race with the US. This economic reality is the primary motive behind their current efforts to forestall a new arms race.
Meanwhile, the Soviet mass media are filled with optimistic predictions about the onset of better times, as well as condemnations of the recent past. The latter are usually expressed metaphorically. For example, the Communist Party daily Pravda recently proclaimed that ``a spirit of renewal and life-giving draughts are blowing through the great Soviet house and driving out the stagnant, dank [odors].'' The language used in party meetings is probably a good deal more earthy.
Sharp and direct criticism of the economic policies of the regime of the late Leonid Brezhnev is more a matter of politics than economics. Each new Soviet leadership always exaggerates problems and pins the blame on the previous leadership, thereby legitimizing its own accession to power. Denunciation of the past regime provides an easy, popular avenue for obtaining legitimacy and support.
Gorbachev is in a poor position to denounce the previous leadership for gross incompetence, since he himself was an integral part of it. In 1978, he became the chief secretary for agriculture in the Communist Party Central Committee, and in 1980 a full member of the ruling Politburo. The years 1978-82 were the worst years of economic performance in the Soviet Union since World War II.
But that does not prevent Gorbachev from castigating the old Brezhnev regime and giving the impression that his government has something dramatically new to offer. Gorbachev has upbraided the pre-vious leadership for failing to change ``the methods of economic management.'' He commented on ``the necessity of serious improvements in administration, in the economic mechanism as a whole.''
Not surprisingly, people expected decisive, prompt actions along those lines. But the months since these early declarations have largely brought disappointment and disillusionment.
One of the few areas in which the new leader has demonstrated decisiveness is in his efforts to reconstruct the party apparatus, to replace an old generation of party bureaucrats (mostly in their 70s) with bureaucrats of his own age (that is, in the age bracket of 55 to 60). But what is so new here? Every new leader does the same thing, and Gorbachev's replacement pales in comparison with the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's purge of the 1930s. Gorbachev is primarily occupied with staffing the aparatus with his own people, but that does not have any impact on the structure or operational principles of the economic system.
Indeed, so far as the economy is concerned, Gorbachev has made no changes. Although his style is rather more polished than that of the Old Guard before him, his policies are conventional.
The Soviet population has been awaiting economic reforms for nearly a quarter of a century. For some 15 years virtually everyone actively engaged in the industrial economy, from blue-collar workers to high-ranking executives, has recognized the need for reform.
In past years, the bureaucracy has issued reams of decrees designed to improve the organization of the economy, planning, material incentives, and so on. There are more than 150 decrees supposedly designed to reinvigorate the agricultural sector alone. But all this flood of paperwork has done nothing more than tinker with the economy.
One point is clear: The path of economic improvement in the Soviet Union must involve radical changes in the basic structure of the political-economic system, including the privileges and power of the party bureaucracy. But it is precisely that kind of change that Gorbachev -- himself a professional party apparatchik -- apparently is unwilling to countenance.
Apart from the shake-up in the party apparatus, the only decisive measure in internal affairs taken so far under Gorbachev has been to reduce alcohol consumption.
It is too early to judge the social and economic effects of this action, but by itself this measure will not bring any tangible benefits. On the contrary, reliance on coercive and penal measures will only worsen the air of demoralization and increase the desire to drink and escape. One should keep in mind the incredible volume of bootleg liquor produced in the Soviet Union to appreciate the magnitude of the problem and the futility of a ``police approach'' to alcoholism, ennui, and disillusionment.
The prospects for effective action are still more discouraging when one considers Gorbachev's activities in the one economic sector in which he is a reputed specialist: agriculture.
Both Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, once they became leaders, launched great campaigns to resuscitate agricultural production -- without, naturally, changing the collective farm system that lies at the root of the trouble.
But Gorbachev has not even gone as far as Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Up to now he has done nothing more than establish a state committee for the agricultural-industrial complex -- in other words, he has increased the central bureaucracy by adding yet another administrative system.
Gorbachev went directly against the advice of reform-minded economists, technocrats, and journalists and took the path of ``super-centralization.'' If that is any indication of the policy he will pursue in other sectors, it bodes ill for the prospects of effective, fundamental reform and reinvigoration in the Soviet economy.
For now, none of Gorbachev's measures on domestic issues testify to a desire for economic and ideological liberalization. Indeed, all the evidence points to the contrary.
Dr. Boris Rumer, a fellow at the Russian Research Center at Harvard University, was chief of the economic department at the National Institute of Construction Industry in Moscow.