Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, in one of his most far-reaching reforms yet, Wednesday detailed a complete reorganization of the country’s state-managed agricultural system, which has proven increasingly incapable of feeding the nation.
Urging the return of “land to the peasants” after nearly 60 years of collectivized agriculture, Gorbachev called for a new, highly decentralized system encouraging the country’s 25 million farmers to work in small cooperatives and even independently in an effort to increase harvests.
Food shortages, which have been chronic for so long in the Soviet Union, are now the country’s most pressing political and social as well as economic problem, Gorbachev told a special meeting of the Communist Party’s policy-making Central Committee. Further delay puts the whole reform effort and even the country’s stability at risk, he warned.
“We still lag behind the developed countries, both large and small, in the productivity of labor in agriculture, in the yield of our harvests, in livestock productivity and in the diversity and quality of food products,” Gorbachev said in a two-hour address, which was broadcast later on national television.
“The gap, rather than narrowing, is growing wider. The food shortages create social tension, and they are generating not just criticism but actual discontent.” he said.
The “food problem,” as the increasingly severe food shortage is called here, is now “our society’s biggest wound,” Gorbachev said, declaring that its solution has become “the main direction of our entire political course, an organic part of revolutionary perestroika .”
Although the immediate intention is “to restore the farmer as the master on the land and, once and for all, solve the food problem,” as Gorbachev told the party meeting, the proposals will require such fundamental changes in the country’s whole economic system as to amount to a redefinition of Soviet socialism.
Laying the Foundation
Such basic economic concepts as private ownership, market forces, competition, capital formation, entrepreneurship and central planning will all need to be rethought, Gorbachev acknowledged, for the steps taken in agriculture will have a wide impact--and are intended, in fact, to lay the foundation for much broader measures.
For this reason, he acknowledged, the proposals have encountered widespread opposition from those wanting to improve but preserve the present system and from others who see a serious threat to socialism as a result of the changes.
He resolutely rejected such conservative criticism, virtually quoting recent speeches by Yegor K. Ligachev, the party secretary in charge of agriculture. But he also declared his intention to preserve the overall framework of state and collective farms as the reforms proceed.
Debate today by the 300 members of the Central Committee and other participants in the two-day meeting will be intense, according to informed Soviet officials, but the final resolution, already the result of more than a year of experimentation, discussion and compromise, is likely to win firm approval and become a key element of perestroika, or restructuring, as Gorbachev’s reforms are known.
The essence of Gorbachev’s proposal is to lease the land, the livestock, the equipment and most of the other productive assets of the Soviet Union’s 49,200 state and collective farms and 7,600 other agricultural enterprises to groups of farmers or workers and even to families and individuals on the basis of negotiated contracts.
Up to 50 Years
These contracts, which could run for as long as 50 years, with a son inheriting the land his father had leased, will require rental payments and initially delivery of specified amounts of produce. But they will free farmers from the day-to-day supervision of the multi-layered bureaucracy that now administers Soviet agriculture and permit them to sell on the open market whatever they produce beyond the contracted amounts.
“The point here is to transfer the land and other means of production to lease-holders and to give them real control over these means,” said Gorbachev, himself the son of a southern Russian peasant.
Farmers, from next January, will also receive significantly higher payments for the produce they sell to the state as a further spur to increase their output, and they have been promised more and better quality farming equipment at lower prices as well as easier and cheaper bank credits.
“The essence of economic change in the countryside should be in granting farmers broad opportunities for displaying independence, enterprise and initiative,” Gorbachev said. “We should resolutely overcome the alienation of rural workers--and, by the way, of all working people--from property that belongs to them in name only.”
In a major step toward that goal, Gorbachev proposed disbanding of the State Agro-Industrial Committee, a super-ministry that he formed in November, 1985, in an earlier attempt at agricultural reform.
Taking its place would be a state commission to coordinate purchases of agricultural produce, still necessary to ensure fair distribution of food at stable prices around the country, and decentralized regional bodies whose mission would be to support, rather than supervise, the farmers.
Gorbachev said the government hopes that the measures will increase farm output by 16% during the five-year plan that begins in 1991 and with improved transport and processing that the production of foodstuffs would grow by 26% to 30%.
Even in years with good harvests--grain production dropped nearly 8% to 195 million tons last year--the Soviet Union cannot feed its 285 million people without extensive imports of wheat, corn, meat, vegetable oil, fruits, sugar, vegetables and other food products.
But declining oil prices have reduced by almost a third over the past seven years Moscow’s ability to make up its food deficit with imports.
Gorbachev traced the origin of the problem to the forced collectivization of agriculture in the late 1920s and early 1930s under the dictator Josef Stalin, who adopted policies that the founders of Marxism had warned would be ruinous for socialism.
The Soviet political system was seen in its “ugliest form in the forcible methods, accelerated pace of complete collectivization and the (arbitrary) intervention in the processes of production, of exchange and distribution,” Gorbachev said.
“The individual’s aspiration to be a master on his own land, the aspiration that had been legislatively recognized, was declared to be a leftover of the private-owner mentality. . . . . Any economic independence of collective and state farms was ruled out, and their members were put in the position of day laborers.”
The problems were compounded over the years despite several attempts after Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 to reform the system, Gorbachev said, offering an extensive review intended to justify his radical proposals.
No Stranger to Farming
“A new agrarian policy, which the countryside so needed, has never been elaborated,” he said, though his first Kremlin job was as the Central Committee secretary in charge of agriculture.
But Gorbachev, under considerable pressure not to abandon the system of state and collective farms and to cushion the impact that the reforms will have on their workers, said the party’s goal would be to develop “the huge potential inherent in the collective system” through innovative policies.