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In centralized USSR, top men ponder little things

Behind Kremlin walls, the ruling Politburo of the Soviet Union has recently pondered these issues:

* The price of women's coats and the supply of lubricating oil for Soviet tractors.

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* The Communist Party's official slogans for May Day and the working hours of TV repair shops.

* Production of a new model of a Soviet car.

* ''Intensifying the struggle against infringements of road traffic regulations.''

Since Yuri Andropov became party leader last November, the Soviet press has been printing brief communiques on a subject long off limits - the workings of the Politburo.

An early effect has been to offer a nuts-and-bolts look at how centralized the Soviet political system is, at how many seemingly mundane issues get mulled over by the most powerful men in the land. This, for a Kremlin team pledged to pump new momentum into the domestic economy, could be both a bonus and a burden.

Of course, the Politburo's weekly meetings do more than slash prices on women's fur coats, ensure that TV repairmen stay on the job a bit later, or ponder how to get Soviet drivers to stop at red lights.

The new leadership seems purposely to be stressing such down-to-earth issues in official Politburo reports, conveying a sense of attentiveness to the needs and concerns of the ordinary citizen. More weighty or sensitive issues may be covered by what is becoming a routine paragraph in the news media's Politburo reports: ''Other'' foreign and domestic questions were also discussed.

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Still, the Politburo undoubtedly does handle a lot of issues that, for instance, the American political and economic system would handle well outside the confines of the White House. Part of the reason is that, despite various halting moves toward devolution in the past 25 years, the Soviet economy remains a centrally run machine. This means Mr. Andropov and colleagues can pull some very powerful levers in any repair job on the nation's economy.

Yet another, related explanation for the eclectic Politburo agenda was suggested, before the days of regular communiques, by a senior official asked to describe the work of the party's inner Secretariat. Next to the Politburo, the Secretariat is the top body in the land:

''Some decisions (by the Secretariat) can be made at lower levels,'' the official remarked. ''But there is a reluctance to take responsibility.''

Various officials say they have long felt this aspect of Soviet centralization could hinder more than help any drive for economic efficiency.

A recent article in an official Soviet newspaper suggested that long years of central planning have spawned an enormous regional and local bureaucracy that only rarely can or does make important decisions. The article, in the trade union newspaper Trud, implied that many such officials and economic managers spend much of their time filling in, signing, or shuffling useless documents.

William Proxmire has nothing on Trud.

The commentary said some ''800 billion documents are created, by millions of people, in our country each year.'' One of its writers, Alexei Rumyantsev, is a reputedly reform-minded Soviet academic and former Pravda editor.

''Over 90 percent of these documents are useless. . . .''

The article noted that, under the current planning system, the decision to produce an ordinary iron for Soviet housewives requires some 60 signatures.

Trud added that individual plants must cope with dozens of official checks each year. Many of the checkers, the commentary argued, don't even recommend improvements. ''The checks are far more necessary for the checkers than for the checked.''

The article's prescription: Get rid of both a lot of the bureaucratic shuffling and a lot of the bureaucrats.

Senior Soviet officials say that a prudently measured move to reassign or retire such personnel is indeed one priority of the new Kremlin leadership. A key related issue, the degree of fundamental economic reform or reorganization accompanying such a move, is said to be under discussion among top experts and officials.

The first conclusive public sign of what such discussion has produced, Soviet sources suggest, could come at a session of the party's full Central Committee. Such a ''management plenum'' is not imminent. One senior official says it could conceivably take place this fall; another says it is more likely to happen next year.

And if the Politburo is already hard at work on the details of such a committee session, its communiques, at least, haven't said so.

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