The Soviet leadership Thursday ordered sweeping changes in the country’s state-managed agricultural system in one of the most profound reforms yet undertaken by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
The Communist Party’s policy-making Central Committee, determined to end the country’s increasingly severe food shortage, endorsed Gorbachev’s proposals for a new, highly decentralized agricultural system intended to increase harvests through greater freedom for Soviet farmers and higher prices for their produce.
In a decision that will have a wide impact throughout the country’s economy and probably bring a redefinition of Soviet socialism, the committee approved plans to encourage the nation’s 25 million farmers to work in small cooperatives and even independently, reversing 60 years of emphasis on the large-scale, collectivized agriculture that has been almost synonymous with socialism.
Although most of the country’s 49,200 state and collective farms will remain as part of the framework for the new system, their role is expected to diminish sharply until they largely become holding companies for the land, equipment and other state and communal assets leased and operated by farmers freed from day-to-day state controls.
The committee approved a draft decree laying the legal foundation for leasing, according to party officials, and the Supreme Soviet, the national parliament, is expected to enact it as law shortly.
Already 24% of the country’s agricultural produce comes from the fields and gardens of individual farmers, and Gorbachev’s pledge to increase the supply of available food by nearly half over the next six years depends on rapid growth of what, more and more, will amount to private agriculture.
“Our people have pinned their hopes on this meeting,” Yegor K. Ligachev, the party secretary in charge of agriculture, told a press conference later. “The nation’s food problem is felt deeply by every citizen of our society, and that problem is not getting easier but really becoming more aggravated all the time.”
With a commitment to increase per capita meat consumption by nearly 25% to 175 pounds a year, that of milk products by nearly 30% to 475 quarts a year and fresh fruits and vegetables by 40% to 308 pounds annually, the Soviet leadership is counting on the efforts of small cooperatives and family farms to provide what collectivized agriculture has failed to produce.
“We are not promising something we cannot achieve,” Ligachev said, outlining the plans to bring Soviet nutrition levels up to the standards of most developed countries by 1995. “I am sure we can change the food situation for the better.”
The essence of the reforms will be to allow farmers, either in groups of varying sizes or even individually, to lease the land and other productive assets of state and collective farms and agricultural enterprises for five to 50 years, paying rent and taxes and initially selling a portion of their production to the government at state-set prices.
This will free the leaseholders from the multi-layered government bureaucracy that now determines what crops they plant, when they harvest and where they market. They will be able to operate largely as if they were the owners, to sell on the open market any excess produce above their contract obligations and to recover the value they have added to the property when their lease expires or is terminated.
The agricultural transformation is also expected to lay the basis for a shift to the operation by similar employee cooperatives of many smaller industrial and commercial enterprises in a major realignment of the Soviet economy.
“This policy is comprehensive,” Ligachev said, acknowledging that the program approved Thursday goes far beyond just an increase in harvests. “In the past, we have tried to come up with two or three palliatives, but each time these have failed.”
And Communist Party officials, speaking at the Kremlin meeting Thursday, made clear their hope that this process--in effect, a privatization of much of the state-owned economy--will accelerate perestroika , or restructuring, as Gorbachev’s overall reform program is known.
But the committee was clearly torn between the need to break boldly with decades of failure that have left the Soviet Union unable to feed itself and a continuing commitment to collectivized agriculture as politically more desirable and part of the nation’s revolutionary heritage.
“One can now hear talk about whether collective farms should exist in the future,” Nina Pereverzeva, a member of the Lenin’s Path Collective Farm from Rostov in southern Russia, said in an emotional speech. “How would we look in the eyes of those generations of collective farmers who created these farms, overcame enormous difficulties, fed the country during the war, fought themselves and then restored the war-ravaged economy if we disbanded them?”
Ligachev, widely seen as the voice of conservatism within the top Soviet leadership, repeatedly declared at the press conference that the party would never abandon the country’s system of collective and state farms even though all agriculture would shift to market-based “economic relations” as part of the reforms.
“We do not see any political danger to our socialist system because everything would continue to be based on common ownership,” Ligachev said, brushing aside questions of whether the changes would introduce elements of capitalism into the Soviet economy.
In televised excerpts of Thursday’s 24 speeches, party officials accepted the need for radical change, as outlined by Gorbachev the day before, but they sharply debated many key aspects of the reforms, such as the amounts of produce farmers will have to sell to the state under terms of their leases.
So serious is the food shortage, however, that no one disputed Gorbachev’s call for fundamental change and his harsh critique of past agrarian policies, party officials told a press conference at the end of the two-day meeting.
Nor did anyone reject his declaration that agrarian reform must become the immediate focus of perestroika if his whole program is to succeed.
Yet, through the debates as well as press reports and Gorbachev’s speech itself, there was much evidence of compromise, of deals struck between the radical reformers grouped around Gorbachev, conservatives around Ligachev and moderates trying to mediate between them.
The final resolution, party officials said, stresses economic diversity rather than a wholesale shift to leasing, and it leaves to regional officials crucial decisions on how to implement the reforms.
In another key compromise, the party condemned the forced collectivization of agriculture under the dictator Josef Stalin but accepted the legitimacy of the resulting system of collective and state farms.
Similarly, questions were raised about the nature of the new economic relationships--the role of private property, of entrepreneurship, of the market and of central planning--but these were left largely unanswered.
“The path is new, and not all is clear or already decided,” Ligachev said.