Soviet Reforms at the Crossroads Political Battle Is Just Beginning over Country's Shift from Rigid Planning to a Market Economy

Article excerpt

ECONOMIC plans are nothing new for the Soviet Union. But the two programs put before the Soviet people this past week mark a historic departure.

For the first time, the Soviet Union must choose, not only between plans but between systems.

The choice is at once ideological, economic, and political. The decision could determine the fate of not only the prime minister but the very existence of his ministries.

The debate is propelled by an atmosphere of crisis and systemic breakdown.

"The economic situation in the country is catastrophic," economist Abel Aganbegyan told the Soviet parliament. "And it is much worse than it appears on the surface."

Two different visions of the Soviet Union emerge from the documents and public debate now under way. The government's more moderate plan seeks to modify the state-run socialist economy with the efficiency and bounty of the market. The Soviet Union remains a centralized nation, though distributing greater power and autonomy to the 15 republics.

The radical plan from the Russian Republic is a pragmatic march to capitalism, resembling in concept the United States more than it does even Sweden. The country would become a voluntary union of sovereign republics, somewhat like the 1777 Articles of Confederation, the American states' first attempt at unity.

The radical plan, drawn up by a group of economists organized by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, is a document remarkably free of the ideological cant usually found here. In clear, detailed terms, it describes the decades-long process of economic collapse in the Soviet Union and offers a step-by-step, 500-day dismantling of all the basic institutions and their replacement by a relatively unfettered market economy.

There are only three options in this crisis, according to the 500-day program - gradual reform, roll-back, or radical reform. The first option, the government's course, has already been "exhausted," they argue.

A return to a command economy, they say, "is realistic, since it has quite a few supporters both in the power structures and among certain groups of the population, weary of instability in everyday life." But it "cannot be done without mass political repression" and will not solve any economic problems.

The word "socialism" never appears in this document. Such ideological distinctions are meaningless, economist Stanislav Shatalin, the group's leader, told parliament on Monday.

"We choose not between London and Paris but between life and death," he said. …


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