Tatyana Zaslavskaya, a large, grandmotherly woman with a round Siberian face, hardly looks like an activist. But that is exactly what this economic sociologist from the Soviet Academy of Sciences' Siberian branch is, and has been for years. In the early 1980s, it was reportedly Dr. Zaslavskaya who wrote the ``Novosibirsk Memorandum,'' which called for decentralization of the Soviet economy. The memo's distribution was strictly limited: Less than 100 numbered copies were printed, one of which was leaked to Western reporters in 1983.
Now those same concepts - allowing enterprises more latitude in their planning and permitting market forces to play a larger role in the economy - are a cornerstone of the Soviet government's plan for reform, and Zaslavskaya is garnering worldwide attention for her views.
She favors a system of ``justified inequality,'' where good workers are rewarded and slackers are penalized. She decries the suppressing of statistics that are essential for the sociological work needed to carry out reform. And in a recent interview in New York, she spoke of the hurdles reform faces and how they can be overcome.
``The level of economic ignorance of the people is extremely high,'' she said. ``It's possibly a result of their ideological grounding. Over the last decade, people have gotten used to the idea that [the government and Communist Party] will give them things and not demand that they themselves produce something in return.''
Zaslavskaya spoke of a typical conversation she had with a driver, who complained about his 180-ruble-a-month salary, close to the average for a Soviet citizen.
``He exclaimed, `I'm an adult man! I should be making 300!' At the same time, he and people like him are unhappy that the stores are rather empty. They're not interested in helping produce more goods - they just want the government to print more money.
``I suggest to them that the opposite will happen - that if the government just hands out more money, then groceries will disappear altogether from the stores.''
How can the people be made to understand and support the new economic thinking? Two ways, Zaslavskaya says. First, through television. ``Everyone watches - and we don't have many channels, so there's a good chance people will see important programs.''
Second, through experience. Workers will begin to get that experience over the next few years under a new law that expands the rights and powers of companies and farms. Under this system, the fine points of which the ruling Politburo is meant to hammer out by the end of this year, enterprises will be able to negotiate contracts among themselves, setting their own prices and wages.
``If you work in a brigade on a collective contract, then you will be deeply interested in the conditions under which that agreement will be completed,'' Zaslavskaya explains. ``Let's say your brigade is supposed to put out 5,000 radios. You make a certain amount for every radio produced. Fulfilling the 5,000 might get you a 10 percent bonus, and maybe something extra for quality.''
Zaslavskaya cited a six-year experiment on a collective farm in the Altai autonomous republic in Siberia as proof of how workers come to support the new system. She said she spoke with a tractor operator there who easily explained to her the details of how the farm functions - how its contracts are worked out, how the system of incentives works. ``He turned out to know more about economics than some agronomists with advanced degrees do,'' she said.
She says resistance or passivity to change among average citizens is great, since harder work is being demanded without, at this point, a visible improvement in living standards. In terms of moving his program forward, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has not come close to passing the ``critical point'' beyond which the country cannot go back to the old system, she says.
Key to incorporating the new laws into the existing economy will be ``indoctrination'' through the use of ``soft words,'' not ``force, or some kind of pressure, as might be presumed,'' she says. But the most important element of making enterprises self-financing is the creation of a realistic price structure, i.e., cutting way back on subsidies, which she says currently cost the government 70 billion rubles a year ($101.5 billion).
``If we take this 70 billion away from factories and add it to salaries and pensions, the people can then have a choice,'' she says. ``A person can buy meat for 5 or 6 rubles a kilo [the current price is about 2 rubles] or he can spend his money on something else, like furniture. I'm sure demand for meat will drop, and meat could appear on store shelves. ... In fact, the demand for meat - 60 kilos per year per person - is not low; in many European countries use is lower.''
Zaslavskaya demurs at questions on her influence in the Kremlin. Though her mentor, Abel Aganbegyan, is one of Mr. Gorbachev's top economic advisers, she says her most important contribution is ``what I have printed in the press.''
She says she has talked with Gorbachev several times with small groups of scholars.
``We have very good relations,'' she adds. ``Once he had someone say hello to me for him.''