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A Soviet Scolding

Since Konstantin U. Chernenko died, western experts on the Soviet Union have speculated that the new Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, might be the great reformer that the system needs. His speech to a Communist Party Central Committee meeting this week does not bear out that expectation.

For several years now it has been obvious that the Soviet economy is in deep trouble. Yuri V. Andropov, former head of the secret police who succeeded Leonid I. Brezhnev as top man in the Kremlin, is credited with wanting to make fundamental changes in the system. He died before he got much done. Gorbachev is his heir apparent.

In an intriguing speech to the Central Committee, Gorbachev admitted serious shortcomings in the economy and proceeded to attack several privileged bureaucrats by name. But when you come down to it, the Soviet leader’s speech was noteworthy mostly for its timidity.

He said in effect that badly needed investments could not come at the expense of living standards. But he also said that military spending was sacrosanct, unless the West could be persuaded to accept the Soviet version of arms control, and that the rules of Communist ideology could not be bent out of shape.

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Taken at face value, that leaves him right where he started. It leaves room for tinkering with the economic management system. But it doesn’t come to grips with the fundamental problems that beset the Soviet economy.

It may be that Gorbachev is playing games, that he in fact recognizes that he must stretch the outer perimeters of ideology in order to solve Soviet economic problems. For now, however, that isn’t at all clear. The man comes through as just another Soviet leader who lacks the imagination and/or political leverage to change in any serious way the status quo in the world’s most rigid society.


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