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Quick Test for His Bold Action : Living Standards Key for Gorbachev

October 03, 1988|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — The dramatic victory that President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has won in reshaping the Kremlin's political hierarchy will quickly be reduced to the basics of Soviet life--how much food he can put on the table.

That yardstick may seem unfair for Gorbachev, who is engaged in making great and far-reaching changes in the whole Soviet system, but the quick test by which he will be judged will be his ability to improve Soviet living standards.

It was the failure of three years of perestroika, as his program of political, economic and social reforms is known, to improve living conditions that led him to act so boldly last week, dropping four veteran political figures from the ruling Politburo, bringing his supporters into the top echelons of the party and setting out on the course of radical change.

New Phase for Perestroika

"Perestroika and the renewal of our society have entered a new phase," he told the Supreme Soviet, the country's Parliament, after his election as president over the weekend. "We can no longer get by with just stormy discussions and meetings and analyses of the mistakes of the past.

"We need practical movement ahead, a genuine improvement of the situation in all directions of our work and especially where people's living standards are concerned. People see and understand our problems and difficulties, but they demand more decisive and energetic steps."

That was the sobering lesson Gorbachev brought back last month from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where he was heckled rather than cheered, and it set in motion the complex political maneuvers that, after a week of high drama, could change the course of Soviet history.

Since coming to power 3 1/2 years ago, Gorbachev had fought and won battle after battle over his reform policies, yet even after a special Communist Party conference three months ago, real victory remained elusive.

Government and party officials had such vested interests, personal as well as political, in the present system that they have effectively blocked many of Gorbachev's reforms and reshaped others to defeat their aims. For many such officials, their fight against reform has become a fight for their own survival.

As the political bickering and infighting has grown, the planned economic reforms have stalled. Major questions on economic strategy have been deferred, and the measures adopted over the past three years have been undercut.

Longer Lines, Discontent

The result has been no improvement, and by most accounts a worsening, in supplies of food and consumer goods, lengthening lines for what little is available and mounting discontent, quickly turning into open anger, among people who feel that perestroika is a political fraud.

The people of Krasnoyarsk were blunt: There was no more food, and perhaps less, than there was three years ago. Housing, schools, public transport and facilities of all sorts were inadequate. And local bureaucrats, cushioned by their special, well-stocked stores, better housing, government cars and other privileges, were indifferent.

Gorbachev, perhaps as shocked by the evident lack of enthusiasm for his reforms among local Communist Party and government officials as he was by the hostile crowds, came back to Moscow impatient with the lack of progress and determined to accelerate and broaden perestroika.

"The impressions that Mikhail Sergeyevich brought from his trip to Krasnoyarsk confirmed the need for serious measures to reorganize the political system and the (government and party) apparatus," Vadim A. Medvedev, the party's new ideology chief, said of Gorbachev after last week's special meeting of the Central Committee that realigned the Kremlin leadership.

Deep, Longstanding Problems

The problems were deep and longstanding, and Gorbachev returned from Krasnoyarsk determined to take decisive action.

The thrust of his reforms, although reaffirmed at the party conference, had been blunted by debate within the Politburo over their nature and extent, and conservatives in the vast party and government bureaucracy had interpreted that debate, and the resulting drift on such key issues as economic strategy, as a license to delay or dilute the changes.

The country's whole political system, meanwhile, had remained geared to the old agenda, although the party conference had endorsed Gorbachev's call for a top-to-bottom reorganization of the party, the government and the economic administration.

And, perhaps most worrisome, the danger seemed to be growing of an anti-reform coup, the same sort of conservative conspiracy that brought down Nikita S. Khrushchev in 1964.

"We are losing time, and this means we are losing," Gorbachev told senior Soviet editors and party ideologists 10 days ago, signaling his determination to act and recover the political initiative.

Party Leadership Reshaped

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