The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

SOVIET CONSUMERS STILL HAVE NO VOICE
OCTOBER 1987

In this snapshot, Gorbachev and his advisors appear not to understand the
seemingly obvious notion that a market economy must respond to the mar-
ket. As later snapshots will confirm, Gorbachev's economic advisors never
quite grasp the basics of a free market system, and are thus unable to generate
economically sound initiatives.

Recent Soviet surveys suggest that the majority of the population is growing skeptical of Gorbachev's reforms. The Soviet people's skepticism is nourished by their experience both as workers and as consumers.

The Soviet press has implied of late that the performance of some sectors is deteriorating. The agricultural sector still cannot provide enough vegetables for the capital, and the technological sector still cannot produce a reliable color television.

Gorbachev's economic advisors have apparently persuaded their boss that significant economic acceleration and technological progress would follow from the introduction of more autonomy in the production cycle. As a result, Moscow has given managers more leeway in setting workers' salaries, buying and selling equipment, distributing profits, and other areas.

As important as these innovations are, however, they barely touch what is perhaps the most significant issue in the centralized Soviet economy--the relationship between producers and consumers. This issue revolves around who evaluates the performance of producers and whose judgments should guide the promotion of managers and the reward of workers and engineers. Should it be the state bureaucracy, or the consumers?

Although reformers boast of reductions in the number of planning requirements that managers must meet, such reductions do not affect the fundamental feature of the Soviet economy--that the success of an enterprise is still measured by planning indicators, rather than by its capacity to survive active competition with other producers.

Soviet consumers continue to exert little influence. As a writer in Sovietskaia Kul'tura recently noted, no one in the country depends on consumers: salespeople do not depend upon buyers, doctors do not depend on their patients, authors do not depend on readers.

State control is even stronger in industry. Certainly, the recent introduction of quality control inspections by state agencies rather than plant di

____________________
This article originally appeared as "Soviet Consumers: They Have Yet to Be Heard From" in The Christian Science Monitor on October 14, 1987.

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