MOSCOW — The Soviet Union faces major political and social unrest on a broad scale within the next two years unless living standards are boosted quickly, the government's top economist warned Friday.
Leonid I. Abalkin, who was appointed deputy premier for economic policy a week ago, said that the government is quickly running out of time and that its policies have so far failed to halt the deepening crisis.
Should the government's new efforts also fail, he added in one of the most sober warnings here yet on the economic crisis, a sharp political swing to the right could result and bring an end to perestroika, as the current reform program is known.
"Our studies show clearly that if the economy is not stabilized over the next year or two and at least the start of an improvement is not achieved, a rightward swing by society is inevitable," Abalkin said at a press conference at the Soviet Academy of Sciences' Institute of Economics.
"Society will be destabilized. The estimate, again, is one to two years at a maximum, and then something unpredictable will begin. The form (of the upheaval) is unpredictable, but it will be inevitable."
Abalkin, director of the prestigious institute and an adviser to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, was joined in his warning by other leading economists and social scientists, whose break from normal caution and their joint press conference underscored their growing fear that the country may not find its way out of the crisis and that Gorbachev's program of perestroika will be the first victim.
Oleg T. Bogomolov, director of the Institute of Economics and World Socialist Systems, another key Kremlin think tank, said that even the new measures outlined by Gorbachev and Premier Nikolai I. Ryzhkov at the Congress of People's Deputies, the new national assembly, appear inadequate to resolve both the specific economic problems--the shortages of food and consumer goods, inflation, a huge budget deficit, over-investment--and to correct the structural flaws in an economy that largely remains centrally planned and managed.
"Economists are demanding more radical measures," Bogomolov said. "There seem to be no concrete proposals to get out of the crisis."
Vladimir Tikhonov, a leading agronomist, went further, warning of an impending famine if radical agricultural reforms, based on the return of land to the farmers as promised by the Communist Party, are not implemented quickly.
"I am sure that if radical transformations are not undertaken next year there will be a famine awaiting us," Tikhonov said, noting that the Soviet Union has now been forced even to import potatoes to feed its people, although it has vast acreage available for planting a larger crop.
Poor foreign currency earnings may force a substantial reduction in Soviet imports of meat, vegetables, fruit and grain, Tikhonov said, and this would mean an even worse "food problem," as the government calls the already severe shortages of most foods.
"Administrators are responsible for this crisis," Tikhonov said, insisting that the country must move to a market system if Soviet farmers are ever to be able to feed the nation.
While Abalkin and Bogomolov said they thought Tikhonov might have exaggerated the dimensions of the country's agricultural problems in warning of a famine, they agreed that the radical economic reforms they believe are needed must start with the decollectivization of agriculture.
To raise living standards, Abalkin said, the government must cut back sharply on state investments and transfer the funds to increased supplies of consumer goods. All unprofitable state enterprises must be closed by 1991. And the government's budget deficit, now estimated at equivalent of more than $165 billion a year, must be reduced radically before it fuels inflation beyond the point of control.