If a foreign correspondent wants to know what workers in Kyzyl think of perestroika (restructuring), or a businessman wonders how Muscovites might take to sliced bread, there's a new way to find out: Commission a public opinion poll. A Center for Public Opinion Research - the first private polling organization in the Soviet Union - has been founded in Moscow by a group of young sociologists. Working strictly for profit, they offer Soviet managers and planners sociological advice and market research, and have carried out public opinion polls for some of the more daring Soviet publications, notably the weekly Moscow News. Now they are looking for clients from foreign corporations and news media.
The development of polls and the growth of independent groups for the study of public opinion point to a potentially significant new feature of Soviet political life: the end of the party's and state's total monopoly of public opinion.
The new center began work at the start of this year and was officially registered at the end of May. So far it has operated on a very thin shoestring: 10 staff members, low wages, and a couple of rooms in a suburban Moscow research institute.
But the center has a powerful patron in academician Tatyana Zaslavskaya, one of the most prominent and provocative sociologists in the country. And one of the few decorations in their office is a picture of Politburo member Aleksandr Yakovlev, one of the strongest supporters of radical reforms in the Soviet leadership.
Some of the center's polls have already made waves. One, published on the eve of July's Communist Party Conference, highlighted the question of privilege in Soviet society.
It showed the Soviet public equally divided on the question of whether there was social justice in the Soviet Union. Forty-three percent believed there was; the same number said there was no justice. Those who answered the poll expressed particular unhappiness with privileges accorded party and government officials.
The poll formed the basis of a full-page article in Moscow News during the conference, and may have been behind the irritable remarks on the subject made by Yegor Ligachev, the second-ranking Soviet leader. He commented acidly at Moscow News's ``ersatz'' coverage of the issue. On Sept. 1, however, one of the best-known special shops reserved for senior officials, was closed.
In August, the center tested reaction to the government's decision to keep the contested Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in the republic of Azerbaijan. Only 14 percent of respondents felt that the problem was really solved. Another 51 percent said that though the problem was ``in principle'' resolved, it would linger. Sixteen percent felt it had not been settled because Armenian rights were infringed upon by the decision.
And in aanother poll, they asked about unemployment, something Soviet leaders have always said does not and will not exist in Soviet society. Sixty percent of respondents said unemployment would be unacceptable. But 32 percent said a degree of unemployment was both possible and necessary in the future.
Center staffers say that they are not sure whether one of their latest polls will be published. Commissioned once again by Moscow News, it looks at the public's attitudes toward different social groups - among them Jews and blacks. While waiting for the results to be published, center staffers were unwilling to go into details. One of the findings from the telephone poll of 1,000 people, however, is that some 12 percent of those questioned were hostile to Jews, 40 percent were sympathetic, and about 44 percent were indifferent.
The center sees much of its work being generated by economic reforms the Soviet leadership is trying to push through. The potential demand for such a center was obvious, says deputy director Dmitry Alekseyev.
Besides, he adds, ``We had very little to lose, apart from a symbolic salary.''
At the start of 1988, 60 percent of Soviet industries shifted to the principle of self-financing. This means that they, not the central bureaucracy, will be responsible for profits or losses. For the first time Soviet managers had a direct interest in such subjects as market research. Next year the remaining industries will shift to self-financing.
Moreover, some parts of the country are talking of regional economic autonomy, an idea first broached by Estonia. Mr. Alekseyev says the center is negotiating to provide a Central Asian republic with research advice as it shifts to the new system. He did not name the republic, but Uzbekistan is known to be considering the idea.
The center also offers young social scientists a chance to break out of the academic hierarchy, and do research that is relevant and interesting. Competition in the field of applied research is growing, center staffers say. Other groups are forming cooperatives to offer similar advice. But the market, Alekseyev says, is far from sated.
The Soviet leadership's interest in polls reportedly began to develop in the 1970s, when a classified department for public opinion research was set up at a main sociological institute. A recent article by a KGB (secret service) officer, pointed to the existence of a little known institution: the KGB's own scientific research institute. Officials say many meetings of the present Politburo begin with an examination of the latest surveys.