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Fueling the Soviet Strikes: ‘Where’s the Borscht?’

<i> Marshall I. Goldman is a professor of Soviet economics at Wellesly College and associate director of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University</i>

When Soviet miners began to walk out of the coal pits, they brought to a head the most serious challenge facing Mikhail S. Gorbachev--how to improve the life of the Soviet consumer. This is a paradoxical situation. Outside the Soviet Union, Gorbachev is applauded as the world’s leading statesman. Within the country, however, he is criticized because of what most Soviet citizens see as the deterioration of their day-to-day standard of living.

Having just returned from Moscow, I can understand why the miners have been moved to take such extreme action. They, like their comrades all over the Soviet Union, find themselves facing shortages that never existed even in Leonid Brezhnev’s “years of stagnation.” Admittedly, the supply of consumer goods has always been erratic in the Soviet Union. But not since the late 1940s have there been so many shortages at once. Even Moscow, a city usually well supplied, now has had shortages in the last month that encompass not only meat, milk and butter, but cheese, sausage, sugar, tea, matches and even salt.

The consumer supply situation is no better outside the capital, and often quite worse. That is why the miners’ demands include such unusual concerns as soap, laundry detergent and disposable syringes, as well as more and better apartments. Nor is this likely to be just a temporary crisis. Otto Latsis, a leading Soviet economist, has predicted that if the shortage of goods that began in 1988 continues for another year, “there will be empty shelves and trade will simply cease to exist.”

Because they see no end to the deteriorating economic situation, the miners in the Kuznets Basin of Siberia decided to protest in the only way available to them. They were not the first to do so.

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Already this year there have been more than 100 strikes throughout the Soviet Union.

This is one unintended consequence of glasnost. There were periodic strikes in the pre-Gorbachev days, but they were never publicized. Now the miners appear on television, and this gives ideas to others whose economic situation is no better. As a result, there are now more workers on strike in the Soviet Union than at any time since the revolution. This is hardly a comforting thought for Gorbachev or the conservatives around him who already fear that the society is beginning to unravel.

The tragedy, particularly in the coal industry, is that the strikes are bound to cause even more economic shortages. Coal accounts for 20% of the Soviet Union’s energy supply. Already there are fears of more brownouts. Some metallurgical factories have already begun to cut back on production for fear they will not have enough coal to operate. Coal is also important for the operation of the already overburdened Soviet railroads. If some trains are canceled for a lack of fuel or electricity, the economic system may soon come to a halt.

To answer the miners’ demands, Gorbachev will have to come up with more consumer goods. But since there are shortages all over the country, he will probably have to search for supplemental supplies outside the country. This will take convertible currency, which the Soviet Union lacks--so it will have to borrow. Even then, the imported goods may soon disappear into the black market. The problem is that the Soviet budget is unbalanced. The budget deficit exceeds 11% of the gross national product. The only way Gorbachev can pay the government’s bills is to print money. No wonder that in 1988 the money supply increased twice as fast as it did in 1987. This extra money has fueled inflation, which now exceeds 10% a year.

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These are not easy days for Gorbachev. He has been in power for more than four years now and the people are begining to ask, “Where’s the borscht?”

It is not enough that he had to worry about cooling tempers between different nationality groups within the Soviet Union. So far, he has been unable to resolve any of these conflicts and if anything, the number of skirmishes seems to be increasing.

In the same way, the economic conflicts show no sign of diminishing. To end the strike Gorbachev has agreed to grant some concessions to some of the miners. But this is likely to lead to more strikes because other groups are likely to conclude that striking is the only way to improve their lot. This of course only causes more economic stress.

All this is too much for some, especially the conservatives. They attribute the strikes as well as the ethnic rioting to Gorbachev’s permissive policies. They also blame him personally for the economic shortcomings of the perestroika process.

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Gorbachev is not the only leader in history to be applauded overseas and criticized at home. However, if he is to continue in power, he will have to perform near-miracles at home. Unfortunately, the prospects are not very bright.


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