Soviet economy may tame its politics

The Soviet Paradox: External Expansion, Internal Decline, by Seweryn Bialer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 372 pp. $21.95. As the subtitle indicates, this book is devoted to one of the most important international phenomena of this period -- the significant fact that while the Soviet Union is at an apex of its military power, both it and its European empire are exhibiting serious signs of internal economic and social decline. This is not a new thesis, but Mr. Bialer, a political science professor and director of the Research Institute on International Change at Columbia University, develops it with an imposing and convincing array of evidence. From the multitude of statistics now available, the author concludes that ``without sweeping changes it [the Soviet domestic system] will decline in its effectiveness in serving the goals of the Politburo.'' He reaches the striking conclusion that ``In the 1980s, Japan is overtaking the Soviet Union as the world's second largest producer of combined industrial goods and services.''

It is this relative Soviet decline which the new General Secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, is determined to reverse. Yet, Bialer concludes, the Russian leader appears unlikely to be able to do so, for he has not recognized that the fault does not lie in how the Soviet system is made to work but in the very nature of the system itself. And it is this nature that seems almost immune to drastic change for a score of reasons -- such as the vested interests of the Marxist hierarchy, communist dogma, the demands of the military, social inertia, lack of economic savoir-faire, and fear of the effect of change on its Eastern European empire.

Added to this is another problem Bialer terms the ``Communist Encirclement'' of Russia. He believes that, in important ways, the existence of Marxist states both near and far from the Soviet Union is causing increasing trouble for Moscow. The communist-ruled lands of Eastern Europe are both an increasing economic drag on Russia and permanent sources of rebellion. China is a growing source of ideological rivalry and, perhaps ultimately, of strategic danger. Elsewhere -- Cuba, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and Vietnam -- most of Russia's client states are little more than economic ``basket cases,'' which remain a permanent drain on the Soviet Union's by-no-means-inexhaustible pocketbook.

Although at no point and in no degree are Moscow's problems remotely fatal, nonetheless they have become serious and promise to become more so. This does not mean that they are yet grave enough to require the Kremlin to draw in its expansionist horns. But, Bialer believes, Russia's economic concerns are sufficient to cause the Kremlin to be ready to be less adventurous and to hope for some kind of a major accord with the United States. This, in turn, provides the US with a major opportunity to reach a limited yet needed agreement with Russia without either endangering national security or surrendering America's most deeply felt global objective.

For a penetrating analysis of the USSR's economic and political position today, this book can be highly recommended.

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