Turning point for Soviet system? Gorbachev plan for radical reform is now in place, but risks seen in party dissent and lack of clear public support

In the past week, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has won support for the most far-reaching and complex reform program that the Soviet Union has seen in 60 years. That is the assessment of Communist Party reformers, who have expressed delight about the outcome of last week's meeting of the party's Central Committee and this week's meeting of the Supreme Soviet (the nation's nominal parliament).

The reforms approved by those bodies aim to change the foundations of economic planning, creating a system that, by the end of the century, is economically far more efficient and politically much more attractive.

But reformers are also taking an enormous risk. They themselves admit they are embarking on changes without the support of a significant segment of the Communist Party.

Last week's plenum of the Central Committee gave substance to more than two years of reform rhetoric. Changes in the ruling Politburo, particularly the promotion of Alexander Yakovlev, Mr. Gorbachev's associate, greatly strengthened Gorbachev's position in the leadership.

By 1991, at the end of the current five-year plan, observers should be able to judge whether the program will succeed. The reforms stress financial incentives, individual initiative, efficiency, and high quality. Achieving this will almost certainly be accompanied by confusion and perhaps even turmoil.

Gorbachev's approach to reform borders on populism. A repeated emphasis on popular enthusiasm for change, coupled with deep distrust of both government and party bureaucracy, has become a central theme of his speeches. This tone was repeated yesterday in Pravda, the main party newspaper. In a long editorial, the paper spoke of the ``worrisome tendency'' of a number of party organizations to fall behind the mood for renewal.

This is a major departure from Soviet communist tradition. Revolution, Vladimir Lenin argued, was a ``professional art.'' Without direction from the professionals, workers would lapse into ``trade unionism'' - demands for better pay and conditions. Now Gorbachev is telling party officials that they - the revolutionary vanguard - have fallen behind the people.

Coupled with this is the leadership's admission that it does not have all the answers. Its constant references to Lenin's New Economic Policy (NEP) have become a form of shorthand for relative ideological flexibility and economic experimentation. In an interview in May, Gorbachev quoted Lenin's remark that to understand world economy one needs 70 Karl Marxes, and added, ``He said that many decades ago. What about now!''

This does not mean retreat from Marxism. Gorbachev and his supporters are true believers who are trying to modernize their ideology. But this approach has given reformers leeway to play with ideas that could have got them in trouble a few years ago. They now mention their interest in China's agricultural success, the Hungarian economy, Japanese and American management methods. Some are reexamining more heretical ideas, such as the economic theories of Ota Sik, the Czech advocate of industrial decentralization who became a vice-premier under Alexander Dubcek, the leader of the 1968 Prague Spring revolt.

The rapidly intensifying attacks on Stalinism are another key part of reform. If NEP symbolizes flexibility, Stalinism represents rigidity and the suppression of debate.

The attacks appear to be carefully timed. Just before last week's Central Committee plenum, economist Nikolai Shmelyov disclosed that 17 million people had gone through Joseph Stalin's prison camps. Immediately after the plenum, an article in the weekly Ogonyok carried an attack on Sergei Trapeznikov, a former Central Committee member and close associate of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, for defending Stalin's methods in the mid-1960s.

Shortly before the June plenum, Gorbachev also seems to have asserted his control over the military. His concessions on disarmament did not attract the arms control agreement he still so badly wants. They probably also made the military leadership deeply unhappy.

But Gorbachev received some unexpected help from Mathias Rust. The West German's unauthorized landing of a private plane in Red Square allowed Gorbachev to claim that incompetence, not equipment, was the military's main problem. It let him appoint an officer from way down the chain of command as defense minister. And it provided another argument to use against United States portrayals of the Strategic Defense Initiative (``star wars'') as a ``leakproof'' defense.

But one of the big questions hanging over Gorbachev's program is: Does he really have the mass support that he claims? Though the official news media stress overwhelming popular approval for the changes, there seems to be little proof that people really understand what the changes entail. One lengthy conversation recently with a teen-ager of better-than-average education resulted in the young man's reducing the current political debate to a short formula: ``Gorbachev means more freedom.''

More than most of his predecessors, Gorbachev relies on sociological research for his information (his wife, after all, was trained as a rural sociologist). Some of this research provides sober reading for reformers.

Studies by Tatyana Zaslavskaya, a sociologist who is one of the main influencers of the reforms, indicate that one of the main legacies of the decades of Soviet economic stagnation was a deep alienation on the part of ordinary workers. In an article published late last year, she cited an estimate that only one-third of workers in industry and agriculture were working at full capacity.

She also carried out a survey of collective-farm managers in Siberia, where the people pride themselves on their independence. Research showed that only 9 percent of collective-farm leaders wanted promotion - and 30 percent would prefer less responsible work, Ms. Zaslavskaya said. This was not because of incompetence, she wrote, but because they felt that the ``social value '' ascribed to the work was not in keeping with its complexity.

What Soviet reformers hope to do

By 1991, reformers say, they intend to achieve a major redistribution of power in the Soviet Union - from central planning bodies and ministries to factories and enterprises.

The central planners will lay down general guidelines, while factories and enterprises will make their own detailed plans and set their own wages.

Inefficient installations will be allowed to go bankrupt. Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov estimated this week that 13 percent of the country's industrial operations lost money last year.

By 1990, price reform should have been carried out, cutting back sharply on the 50 billion rubles' ($72.5 billion) worth of annual subsidies on food and services.

Similar changes will probably take place in agriculture. One of the most outspoken reformers recently expressed doubts that many collective farms could ever be made profitable, and suggested that they should be broken up and rented out. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev seems to be heading in that direction. He has called for collective farms to make some of their land available for rent to outsiders.

The industrial and agricultural changes could force substantial relocations of population. Officials say that industrial workers from bankrupt firms may have to move to find new work.

And sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya reports a survey of collective farm leaders in the Altai autonomous republic, which asked administrators how things would change if farms were allowed to make their own plans. Almost half (42 percent) of the leaders estimated that under those circumstances a sizable proportion of their workers - on average 15 to 20 percent - would not be needed.

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