THE assembly line at the most modern auto factory in the Soviet Union moves like rush-hour traffic in midtown Manhattan. In one section of the sprawling floor of the Moscow Automobile Works, automatic robots send up showers of sparks as they weld a steady flow of car chassis.
Not far away, the line has simply stopped altogether. Workers take naps in half-assembled cars hanging from overhead rails. Women in the paint section sit around a table to chat and drink tea amidst the acrid fumes.
The workers are waiting for parts. Even the most basic elements of the car - the steel sheets that are pressed to form the body - are in short supply.
Officials at the plant provide telling numbers - a few years ago, the plant used to turn out about 160,000 Moskvich passenger cars a year. Last year, production was down to 78,000, in a factory with the capacity to produce 180,000.
The plant managers offer several explanations for this drop. In part, they say, it is simply teething problems from the introduction last year of a new model, the Moskvich 2141. Along with the model change came an upgrade of plant equipment, including robotization and a redesign of the assembly line, which is still in process. All this has been done with the assistance of the French car company Renault.
But the other part of the story is a now-familiar tale throughout the Soviet economy of shortages and half-baked reforms. The Moskvich plant is caught, like so many others, in a nether world between the old system of command from the center and the promised new world of a market economy.
``We have a problem with a steady supply of parts,'' Alexi Morozov, director of the plant's foreign relations department, says. ``And to keep production running we need inventory.''
The plant depends on about 300 suppliers, he explains. Under the old system, the central auto industry ministry and the State Planning Committee set the production quotas for the plant and told it who the suppliers were.
``Then, we made direct contracts with them, indicating the prices and the time limits,'' Morozov says. ``But the system of having one supplier is bad, because they feel like monopolists and can change the price whenever they like.''
In the name of ending central control and monopoly, Mikhail Gorbachev's government gave enterprises the theoretical freedom to manage themselves, including making direct contracts. In reality, the official says, ``only a few minor things changed.'' The Moskvich plant now has some contracts with steel plants bypassing the auto ministry. But these are small-scale barter deals: The plant trades its cars to get steel.
Would the plant like to be completely free, the officials are asked. Someday yes, answers Nicholai Kaluga, deputy head of the official trade union that functions as part of the plant management. But ``it's unfeasible under the present system of economic relations,'' he explains. ``We still depend on supplies which are controlled by the state.''
The attitude of the auto industry ministry toward reform is perhaps best expressed by the response of a senior official to a request for information on the number of cars produced last year in the Soviet Union. It is a ``state secret,'' he told a caller. Over at the Central Statistical Board the secret was revealed, however - 1,217,108 cars, some 200,000 less than in 1983.
At best, the government's reforms resemble what novelist Joseph Heller made famous as ``Catch-22.'' For example, about 40 percent of the steel sheets used in the plant were previously imported. The imported steel was centrally bought and distributed to the different auto plants by Gossnab, the central State Committee on Supplies.
``When we became independent, the government ceased to finance imports,'' says Morozov. But the plant does not earn enough foreign currency to pay for the needed steel imports.
And even if the plant made enough from exports of its cars, they are not allowed to use that money freely, the official continues. All payments made in foreign currency must go through the State Bank for Foreign Economic Relations and ``they are keeping it,'' he says. According to other sources, the bank is using these funds to try to ease a crisis in payments on Soviet foreign debts.
The situation reached such a crisis that the directors of all the motor works in the Soviet Union - there are four major plants - had to go directly to Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov to beg for steel. Now, the Moskvich officials say, supplies are coming but not at the previous level.
On the factory floor, the reality is plain to see. The steel shortage has slowed the line, Mr. Kaluga admits. And the steel they have is of uneven quality. The automated equipment has to be heavily supplemented by manual labor. In one area, workers with hand tools smooth the edges of doors and other parts.
The most skilled craftsmen in the plant work in a branch section of the assembly line where they repair the defects in cars bodies coming off the line. With small hammers, the workers bang away on door frames and body panels, removing bumps and trying to make the parts all fit.
Compared with plants this writer has visited in Japan, the assembly line seems like a maze. It is less a continuous process than a series of subassembly lines whose linkages are difficult to discern. The plant is poorly lit, half concealed in dark shadows. Sparks fly into walkways and there is no apparent attention to safety, even obligatory cautionary signs.
A conversation with a few workers at a halted section of the line quickly gathers a group of rough-faced men in stained T-shirts. Pyotr Turin has been working here for 14 years and makes 350 rubles a month, a good wage by Soviet standards. Asked what changes the workers would like to see here, Pyotr quickly replies. ``The shop should be completely redesigned. We need better working conditions, better tools. The parts should be delivered on time.''
Do the managers ever ask your opinion? ``Never,'' several workers reply. ``We workers know better than the managers what to do,'' a worker says sharply, to the nodding assent of his comrades.
Trade union official Kaluga returns to join the conversation. ``Let's get going,'' he says. ``You're slowing down the line.''
Speaking later, Kaluga admits that the views of workers have less weight than they might in a similar plant in the West. ``We've been separating workers from management problems for too long,'' he says. ``It's difficult to reverse this.''
``All organizations now have to win the trust of workers anew,'' he says, quickly adding that his union still has that trust. On the floor, where the 23,000 production workers of this plant can be found, the view is again different.
The union is ``under the heel of the administration,'' Turin says flatly. The workers all eagerly voice their support for forming an independent union, something that has already begun at the larger Volga Auto Works.
The managers and the workers share one feeling - no one wants to go back to the old system of the command economy. ``Now we have the taste of freedom, and we are not going to give it up,'' says Kaluga.