Quick Test for His Bold Action : Living Standards Key for Gorbachev

Times Staff Writer

The dramatic victory that President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has won in reshaping the Kremlin's political hierarchy will quickly be reduced to the basics of Soviet life--how much food he can put on the table.

That yardstick may seem unfair for Gorbachev, who is engaged in making great and far-reaching changes in the whole Soviet system, but the quick test by which he will be judged will be his ability to improve Soviet living standards.

It was the failure of three years of perestroika, as his program of political, economic and social reforms is known, to improve living conditions that led him to act so boldly last week, dropping four veteran political figures from the ruling Politburo, bringing his supporters into the top echelons of the party and setting out on the course of radical change.

New Phase for Perestroika

"Perestroika and the renewal of our society have entered a new phase," he told the Supreme Soviet, the country's Parliament, after his election as president over the weekend. "We can no longer get by with just stormy discussions and meetings and analyses of the mistakes of the past.

"We need practical movement ahead, a genuine improvement of the situation in all directions of our work and especially where people's living standards are concerned. People see and understand our problems and difficulties, but they demand more decisive and energetic steps."

That was the sobering lesson Gorbachev brought back last month from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where he was heckled rather than cheered, and it set in motion the complex political maneuvers that, after a week of high drama, could change the course of Soviet history.

Since coming to power 3 1/2 years ago, Gorbachev had fought and won battle after battle over his reform policies, yet even after a special Communist Party conference three months ago, real victory remained elusive.

Government and party officials had such vested interests, personal as well as political, in the present system that they have effectively blocked many of Gorbachev's reforms and reshaped others to defeat their aims. For many such officials, their fight against reform has become a fight for their own survival.

As the political bickering and infighting has grown, the planned economic reforms have stalled. Major questions on economic strategy have been deferred, and the measures adopted over the past three years have been undercut.

Longer Lines, Discontent

The result has been no improvement, and by most accounts a worsening, in supplies of food and consumer goods, lengthening lines for what little is available and mounting discontent, quickly turning into open anger, among people who feel that perestroika is a political fraud.

The people of Krasnoyarsk were blunt: There was no more food, and perhaps less, than there was three years ago. Housing, schools, public transport and facilities of all sorts were inadequate. And local bureaucrats, cushioned by their special, well-stocked stores, better housing, government cars and other privileges, were indifferent.

Gorbachev, perhaps as shocked by the evident lack of enthusiasm for his reforms among local Communist Party and government officials as he was by the hostile crowds, came back to Moscow impatient with the lack of progress and determined to accelerate and broaden perestroika.

"The impressions that Mikhail Sergeyevich brought from his trip to Krasnoyarsk confirmed the need for serious measures to reorganize the political system and the (government and party) apparatus," Vadim A. Medvedev, the party's new ideology chief, said of Gorbachev after last week's special meeting of the Central Committee that realigned the Kremlin leadership.

Deep, Longstanding Problems

The problems were deep and longstanding, and Gorbachev returned from Krasnoyarsk determined to take decisive action.

The thrust of his reforms, although reaffirmed at the party conference, had been blunted by debate within the Politburo over their nature and extent, and conservatives in the vast party and government bureaucracy had interpreted that debate, and the resulting drift on such key issues as economic strategy, as a license to delay or dilute the changes.

The country's whole political system, meanwhile, had remained geared to the old agenda, although the party conference had endorsed Gorbachev's call for a top-to-bottom reorganization of the party, the government and the economic administration.

And, perhaps most worrisome, the danger seemed to be growing of an anti-reform coup, the same sort of conservative conspiracy that brought down Nikita S. Khrushchev in 1964.

"We are losing time, and this means we are losing," Gorbachev told senior Soviet editors and party ideologists 10 days ago, signaling his determination to act and recover the political initiative.

Party Leadership Reshaped

In bold moves, Gorbachev reshaped the top party leadership, assuring himself of a working majority within the Politburo and putting into effect plans for reorganization of the powerful Central Committee Secretariat.

Four Politburo holdovers from the era of the late Leonid I. Brezhnev were replaced by Gorbachev supporters, the central party bureaucracy was cut back by nearly half, and Yegor K. Ligachev, Gorbachev's main rival within the leadership, was shifted from ideological matters to agriculture.

"He may look like a different breed of Soviet leader, but he certainly demonstrated that he knows how to play the Kremlin power game," a senior Western diplomat said over the weekend. "He has shown us a side that we always suspected was there, and it is a lesson not to be taken lightly."

According to widely circulating but unconfirmed reports here, Gorbachev convened a special Politburo meeting last Monday, outlined his proposed moves and, in the absence of Ligachev and several other conservatives, won approval for the changes.

After informing Ligachev, who was vacationing in the southern Soviet republic of Georgia, Gorbachev quickly called the policy-making Central Committee to Moscow for an urgent meeting and scheduled a special session of the Supreme Soviet.

Move to Block Opposition

"The main thing was to prevent anyone from organizing opposition," an academic close to Gorbachev said. "We have a political history of conspiracy and counterconspiracy, and you never want to give your opponents the time and space to gather. . . .

"This was a preemptive action, not against some specific plot but against the general opposition, and it was very, very important to act quickly, to act decisively."

What to the outside world appeared for a time to be a full-blown political crisis in the Kremlin was to most Soviet observers a test, probably the most severe yet, of Gorbachev's power and determination--and for them quite normal politics.

"We see that we still cannot resolve some problems without interfering in the old way, like we did in the past," Gorbachev said on his return from Krasnoyarsk.

Within the Politburo, Gorbachev now can probably count on the support of seven or eight of the 12 voting members, plus the backing of most of the eight non-voting members who will bring considerable weight to any discussion.

6 New Committees

Firm Gorbachev allies also chair four of the six new Central Committee policy commissions that will shape and implement the reform program.

A key move was the promotion of Medvedev, a political economist, to the Politburo in charge of ideology. "The success and acceptance of the economic reforms rest on redefining socialism," one Western diplomat remarked.

While some analysts, Soviet as well as Western, expressed strong doubts that, as one diplomat put it, "fiddling with personalities" will resolve the country's tough, almost intractable economic problems, others were more optimistic following the changes.

"The Politburo debates will shift from the question of 'whether' to 'how,' " one well-informed Soviet journalist commented Sunday. "Our period of hesitancy, indecision almost, is over. . . .

"In purely political terms, the conservatives have been out-maneuvered. Perhaps they are not beaten, but they have lost so much ground that active opposition will be futile and passive opposition will probably prove inconsequential."

Signal to Bureaucracy

Equally important, according to those who count themselves as optimists following the changes, will be the signal that the moves send to the vast bureaucracy.

"If veteran members of the Politburo can be ousted with such political jujitsu by the reformers," another senior Soviet journalist remarked, "how can a regional party secretary in the hinterland possibly resist? That, at least, is a question he must now ask himself."

Gorbachev also set in motion reforms that will pull the party out of day-to-day management of the government and the economy and transfer its authority over to elected government councils, known as soviets, and enterprise managers.

His assumption of the Soviet presidency was the first step toward the new political system that he had outlined at the party conference but that remains a controversial break with the past 50 years.

"The process of constitutional reform is now under way," a Central Committee official said after the changes were announced Friday. "People needed to see this, that the reforms would be put into effect at the top, so that they act at lower levels."

Gromyko's Agreement

Andrei A. Gromyko, the 79-year-old veteran of Soviet diplomacy, whom Gorbachev replaced as president, agreed to step aside, according to party officials, in order to promote the reforms.

"This was Andrei Andreyevich's final duty, and he carried out the task with great selflessness," a senior Central Committee official commented. "To put the whole package together and to push it through against all the opposition, Gorbachev needed to move into the presidency and to bring younger men into the Politburo. He asked Gromyko, and Gromyko agreed."

Officially, Gorbachev is now chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, as well as general secretary of the Communist Party. A key aide, Anatoly I. Lukyanov, was elected first vice president and charged with implementing the constitutional changes and the new, multi-candidate elections planned for next spring.

What pleased Gorbachev supporters most, however, was the energetic, take-charge image he projected.

"Nothing can be put off until later," he told the Supreme Soviet after his election as president on Saturday. "Whatever can be done today must become the object of attention and of decisions by the soviets (councils) at all levels. . . ."

Determination Not Enough

Gorbachev's supporters acknowledged over the weekend that this determination and the political power Gorbachev displayed in reshaping the Kremlin leadership will not, by themselves, resolve the country's economic problems.

"We know the problems are even greater through the middle levels of the bureaucracy and among the people themselves than perhaps they are at the top," an influential political scientist who has advised Gorbachev said, asking not to be quoted by name.

"But the fact is that we cannot begin to deal with that resistance until the leadership has been unified and is committed to the same program of reform. That was the crucial achievement."

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