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Why Kremlin tries to keep shoppers in line

Moscow Grocery No. 2 was packed, as usual, with afternoon shoppers who had slipped away from work to beat the vagaries of the city's food supply system. But this time police inspectors were waiting.

''Name, please. . . . Identification. . . . Place of employment. . . . Reason for shopping at this hour. . . .''

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The spot-check is one of a number of signs since the New Year's holiday suggesting that the post-Brezhnev Soviet leadership means to follow its tough early words on economic ''discipline'' with action.

Precisely whatm action is not yet clear. There has been growing official emphasis on the need for strict implementation of regulations already on the books. A high-level party and government meeting Jan. 7, the official media said, directed that undisclosed ''practical measures for the strengthening of labor discipline'' be worked out and implemented.'' One problem mentioned was that of ''lost worktime.''

Senior officials interviewed in December suggested exact policy lines were still being worked out but that, at least so far, the decision had been to avoid hasty new measures in favor of trying to instill a general ''atmosphere'' of discipline within the nation's economy.

A member of the Communist Party Central Committee said the priority targets of the discipline campaign were clearer: black marketeering, speculation, high labor turnover, drinking on the job, absenteeism.

The ''atmosphere'' does seem to be changing.

Traffic cops, for instance, have been reining in their traditional impulse to seal a quick cash deal with offending motorists in lieu of inflicting a dreaded punch-hole in their licenses. Some policemen have given up the practice altogether recently.

''Others still end up asking for money,'' says one driver. ''But the process takes longer and,'' he adds with a smile, ''is more expensive. . . .''

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Buses in the city center are more crowded in the early morning hours. ''They're all going to work on time,'' a bus driver explains.

At a Moscow light-bulb factory, according to the national television news a few days back, some workers returning from the New Year's break were handed questionnaires asking them to state their personal contribution to the plant's production - this, a woman employee told the TV audience, in a bid to ensure better discipline.

And at Grocery No. 2 - in Muscovite parlance, the Smolensky, after the downtown square on which both it and the Soviet Foreign Ministry sit - police inspectors carried out their spot-check after the holiday.

Shoppers at TSUM, a major Moscow department store, reported a similar check, as did at least one city book shop. Muscovites aren't quite sure what to make of it all.

Verbal calls for discipline - though perhaps not so bluntly phrased - had been heard before Yuri Andropov became party leader in November. The official media - though perhaps not so often - had publicly taken to task the corrupt, the inefficient, and the indolent.

Spot-checks of stores are not new either. What is novel, Muscovites say, is that the checks generally focused on identifying shifty shopkeepers rather than shoppers who theoretically should have been working.

''And it's a good thing, too,'' says a salesgirl at the Smolensky. But at least one man caught in the check disagreed.

''My fear,'' he said, ''is that even though discipline is a good thing, long overdue, the atmosphere may lead eventually to denunciations and enormous mistrust among people. . . .''

Neither the shoppers nor the saleswoman was quite sure what happens to those who were stopped. ''I suppose they'll give the names to their employers, and it will be handled at their enterprises,'' a counter attendant said.

Still, the problem of workday shopping is not simple - stemming, as it does, from longtime problems in making quick stops at the grocery after office or factory hours and actually finding the items one is looking for.

A few days after the Smolensky spot-check, dozens of midday shoppers were still evidently off the job. One counter woman remarked: ''Yes, it's been chock-full here in recent days . . . with the holiday, especially.''

''This is the first day it has been a little less crowded, but that's because it is the first day in some time we've got no sausage.''

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