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Sowing reform in Soviet agriculture

This year's Soviet grain crop may turn out to be both good news and bad for the Kremlin. The good news is simple: a good harvest, barring late weather problems, for the first time in five years. Moscow has also sealed stable import sources, notably Argentina, Canada, and the United States. US Agriculture Secretary John Block arrived here Aug. 24 to sign the US-Soviet grain pact.

But a brightened domestic grain picture, traced by Western experts largely to better weather, could also complicate a new bid by the Kremlin to reform the nation's inefficient agricultural sector.

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There have been signs the campaign is running up against inertia among various groups - including the very local managers whose power it is supposed to expand.

And the program has yet to tackle at least one major hurdle: reassignment of deskbound agricultural experts to work down on the farms, a move referred to passingly in high-level statements but apparently still in its early stages.

The snags are of particular interest in light of an official debate on possible similar changes in the economic planning system as a whole.

''If people are indeed resisting change in the agricultural system,'' one foreign diplomat remarks, ''it stands to reason a good harvest would offer a good excuse for standpattism.''

At issue is a national ''food program'' announced under Leonid Brezhnev last year and muscularly endorsed by his successors.

The program has been mainly pooh-poohed in the West, on the grounds it doesn't amount to truly radical overhaul of the agricultural sector, or to wholesale undoing of the central planning system, which is seen as a major factor in Soviet economic inefficiency.

The campaign must also contend, at least in the short run, with a nagging network of shortages in quality agricultural inputs: from fertilizers to tractors, storage facilities to rail cars.

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Nonetheless, in a Soviet context, the program does imply reform: at least a measure of decentralization, added use of incentives, a move to more rational plan indexes, and some streamlining of a vast planning and management bureaucracy.

Key in the equation is a national network of over 3,000 newly created ''district agro-industrial associations'' - known as RAPOs, from the Russian acronym. RAPOs, formally in place since late February, unite representatives of local farms with related supply and marketing enterprises.

The idea is to give each ''link'' a stake in the amount of food finally produced - the measure by which all performance is now to be judged. Previously, a tractor producer, for instance, could get along swimmingly by turning out the requisite number of shoddy machines - his plan target. If the tractors broke down on the farm, as often happens, that wasn't the tractor producer's worry. (Indeed, it helped repairmen meet their own targets.)

The typical postscript to a poor harvest was for various local bodies - farms , transport units, fertilizer or tractor factories - to accuse each other of queering the entire process.

RAPOs are to get the key say in local organizational decisions - though they'll still have to reckon with centrally set production targets. They will also have a big hand in allocating some investment monies.

At the same time, the Kremlin is prodding the nation's sprawling state and collective farms to switch from management-by-decree to so-called ''normless brigades.'' These small groups of farmers are given a set chunk of a farm's acreage, without norms or orders from above. The ''brigade'' contracts for supplies of seed, fertilizer, and other inputs, then gets profits on the basis of its harvest.

Three of the USSR's 15 national republics - including the largest, Russia - have announced the fusion of various agricultural authorities into single bodies in charge of the ''agro-industrial complex.''

From the start, senior officials have been keenly aware of the likely bureaucratic and other snags to any such reorganization. Officials stress such problems are inevitable at first, and that Moscow realizes the key to success will be long-term commitment. But they are still clearly concerned about the snags.

As early as last October, the Communist Party chief of the Georgian Republic - which pioneered the concept of RAPOs before it was endorsed nationwide - lamented publicly that ''the restructuring is going ahead only slowly.''

He said existing ministries and government offices were resisting the idea of working through district-level managers. And beyond this, he added, the district bodies still suffered from ''inertia, sluggishness in resolving acute questions, and a tendency not to intervene.''

As RAPOs were gradually introduced countrywide, press reports revealed similar problems.

In one case, a RAPO's first session was marked by uncertainty about the body's powers and responsibilities. The meeting also failed to clarify how the RAPO would hire the requisite staff, though the account did say even personnel from former agricultural bodies were still reporting to their old jobs and seemed ''curiously . . . in no panic'' over their futures.

The meeting was also marked by familiar recrimination among various district interests over reasons for the area's agricultural problems.

In an Aug. 4 Pravda interview, Soviet Agricultural Minister Valentin Mesyats said the initial stage in the RAPOs' activity had not been ''free of blunders.'' He said: ''The new bodies are frequently timid and weak in using their rights, particularly in strengthening business ties between (farm and related industrial) partners.

''It is no secret that many of them are more concerned about their own profits, while other councils are frightened to speak their minds. The power needs to be used; they have it,'' he said.

As for this year's domestic grain crop, local media reports say it is shaping up as better than last year's. Last year's crop was the fourth disappointing harvest in a row, and the second consecutive one for which a final figure was not published. US experts are currently estimating the gross grain harvest at about 200 million metric tons.

Some Western news reports stress this would still fall well short of the official target - 238 million tons. But 200 million would still be one of the best results on record.

Even over the last four poor harvests, the Soviets - with a boost from imports - have had no trouble keeping the country supplied with grain and bread products.

The perennial Soviet problem has, instead, been to ensure sufficient feedgrains for livestock. But the Soviets seem generally to have avoided major distress slaughter of their herds despite the recent poor harvests, putting up with declining milk yields and the like on the theory the animals could be fattened relatively quickly once a good harvest came around.

Western analysts see various explanations for the upturn in this year's Soviet harvest. One factor is undoubtedly the increased official focus on agricultural output in the wake of the food program.

Yet, particularly since the food program is still in its infant stage, the analysts assume that the major factor is that the Soviets have had far friendlier farming weather this year than in the past four.

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