AFTER eight months of turmoil over whether to ``go fast'' or ``go slow'' in economic reform, Mikhail Gorbachev has opted for the radical course. It's also the best course. Stanislav Shatalin's ``500 Days'' program, which Gorbachev endorsed last week, is the fast path to a free market. The analogy shouldn't be overdrawn, but in its own way, the new path may be as historic and potentially wrenching a shift for Russia as was the 1917 revolution. The drama is highlighted by empty shelves and Russians standing in long bread lines for the first time in decades.
Over the next year and a half, Soviet economic reformers will try to break the back of state-owned collectivism and central planning in the Soviet Union. They will try to privatize state property, create a banking system and stock market, and, most importantly, introduce price reforms.
What's attractive about radical measures is that, unlike the moderate approach, they begin to change and loosen the underlying mechanisms of the rigid Soviet system.
The 500 Days plan emerged from a working group convened by Boris Yeltsin, who also happens to be Gorbachev's chief rival. The group was a result, however, of a politically fortunate rappochement between the two leaders last month. In fact, Gorbachev probably leaped to endorse the plan. Radical change may be the only hope for the inefficient Soviet economy. But since radical measures may bring pain and chaos, Gorbachev needed to be associated with the popular political will which Yeltsin can muster. (Already we find ``democratic'' coalition building in the Kremlin!) It was the spectre of social chaos that unnerved Gorbachev last spring, and caused him to balk on his own ``go-fast'' plan, put together by Nikolai Petrakov.
There's also political savvy in the 500 Day plan. It will freeze the prices of some 100-150 basic necessities. Under the moderate plan of Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, the chief alternative to the Shatalin plan, no prices would freeze.
The basic economic structures in Russia need to change. Social and political shocks will occur no matter what the course. Hence, the need for a plan that attempts to change the underlying problems of inefficiency, inflexibility, and lack of accountability.