THE next two to three years will be decisive in the struggle to reform the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev says. During this period, the old, unwieldy, and inefficient system of economic management has to be broken and replaced by a new mechanism that will provide the power for a technological breakthrough by the start of the next century, reformers say.
The planned innovations are extraordinarily complex and, in the case of price reform, politically explosive.
The leadership's determination to push them through is clear, but even reformers admit they are not quite sure how or when the new policies will be carried out.
What is also clear is that Gorbachev is facing enormous obstacles. Although he and other reform-minded leaders stress that perestroika (restructuring) enjoys popular support, the leadership's own opinion polls show that this support is not as firm as the leadership would like.
Soviet sociologists warn that 50 million to 60 million workers - more than 40 percent of the work force - will probably have little reason to welcome restructuring. Pensioners, of whom there are 58 million, will need special protection from price rises.
The bureaucracy, which stands to lose a lot of its power and privileges, is already resisting the changes, reformers say.
Moreover, the reforms could eventually spark a strong reaction from conservative socialists who fear that the new policies, with their stimulation of individual initiative, promises of higher wages, and threat of higher prices will erode the foundations of Soviet socialism.
Reformers want to cut the country's 18 million-strong bureaucracy by at least 40 to 50 percent. They want factories to make profits, not soak up subsidies. They want workers to work hard, and promise them unlimited salaries if they do.
The reformers also plan to make life uncomfortable for those who work less hard. Factories will be allowed to go bankrupt (13 percent failed to make a profit, Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov said this past June).
The traditional social contract - a guaranteed job, medical care, education, and housing - will not disappear, reformers stress. But it will be considerably modified. Workers who are surplus to requirements may find themselves temporarily out of work. They may have to move to another, less pleasant part of the country, to a worse-paid or less prestigious job. The prices of food and other services, currently heavily subsidized, will rise sharply.
Do people really understand what the reforms mean? Do they really support them?
Vilen Ivanov, director of the Institute for Sociological Research, said in a recent interview that most people associate perestroika with a better life. There seems to be little public realization that things will probably get worse before they get better.
However, for the time being at least, most of the population does not agree with the plans to reform retail prices, according to Otto Latsis, deputy editor of the theoretical journal Kommunist.
Opinion polls carried out by Dr. Ivanov's institute indicate that support for perestroika is widespread but soft.
Ninety-four percent of young intellectuals - the social group most favorable to reform - support perestroika, one poll showed. Eighty-four percent of young workers felt the same way. ``Up to 50 percent'' of those questioned, Ivanov says, felt that reform was mainly a job for older generations - not them.
Thirty to 40 percent of young manual and office workers expressed the view that they personally did not need to change their approach to work. The institute's polls show that skepticism toward reform increases the closer one gets to the shop floor.
Twenty-one percent of executives questioned in one Moscow poll felt that the initial stages of reform were going well in their factories. None of the workshop heads felt the same way, the poll reports: Half of them said reform was going slowly, the other half said it was not going at all.
The polls point to one of the big problems that Gorbachev faces: If the reforms are to succeed, he has to mobilize the population. To do that, reformers must overcome the alienation that leading sociologists like Tatyana Zaslavskaya say has set in over the last few decades. Alienation has made people skeptical of calls for reform, and dubious of their ability to change the status quo.
Alienation was born in the postwar years of widespread social injustice, says Ms. Zaslavskaya. Injustice took many forms, she says.
There was economic injustice: Speculators, people who made money from the black-market economy, and corrupt Communist Party and government officials were seen to be doing very well, Zaslavskaya says.
But for most others, life was hard. People could not obtain justice from the judicial system. And they were unable to express their views in the news media.
The promise of reform has started to erode this apathy, Zaslavskaya believes. But it will undoubtedly remain a problem in the foreseeable future - at least for the next five years.
The writer Anatoly Pristavkin takes a more pessimistic view. The Stalin and Brezhnev years led to something like biological ``anti-selection,'' Mr. Pristavkin says. People had to decide whether to accept the absurdity of the system or drop out. Even assuming ``favorable conditions, full glasnost and perestroika, it will take several generations to recover,'' he says.
Alienation is not the only major problem, however. The old system may be inefficient and unwieldy, but it allows a lot of people a tolerable standard of living at the cost of minimum effort.
For the unambitious or the incompetent manager, the old system is like ``a cozy nest,'' says Zaslavskaya. ``You're ordered to do things at every step of the way. But if you make a loss, it's made up for you.''
Ivanov says the reforms offer considerable opportunities to the skilled managers, specialists, and highly skilled workers - the sort of people who will be needed to run future high-technology operations. He also notes that about 50 million workers will derive little from the changes. These are manual workers, those with little or no skills, or those carrying out heavy or unpleasant work. There is little they can do to improve their output. Low-skilled workers along with incompetent executives, a report by Ivanov's institute notes, form the pool from which the ``hidden enemies of perestroika'' are recruited.
The other main threat to reform comes from the bureaucracy. If reform works, about 8 million to 9 million officials will lose their present jobs in the next few years. The bureaucracy forms a dense and multilayered screen between the top leadership and the grass roots. It is, reformers say, already resisting reforms.
Perestroika is a revolution from above, Zaslavskaya comments, ``but the impulse [for change] coming from the top dies out somewhere half way along.''
The reaction to some reforms - notably the legalization of some individual enterprise - has displayed the strong seam of political conservatism in Soviet society. ``Legalized theft,'' one man said to another recently on a trolley bus, in reference to individual enterprise. Conservative ideologists fear that many of the reforms will lead to ``social stratification'' - the creation of new, economically privileged social groups.
But Anatoly Pristavkin says that social stratification took place during the years of stagnation: The people with political privileges were able to ``steal more, take more bribes, enjoy free travel vouchers [for vacations], free use of cars.'' The rest of society, he says, ``became even poorer.''
Zaslavskaya concedes, however, that these concerns are deeply rooted.
Many people who are committed to the idea of equality that the Soviet state has been preaching for much of its existence are worried by the turn away from traditional values.
``For some reason, they're very worried that their neighbor is going to earn more tomorrow [under the new system],'' Zaslavskaya says. ``At the same time their neighbor may be stealing a lot or speculating [on the black market] today; for some reason this doesn't worry them.''
The timetable for change
Jan. 1, 1988: Sixty percent of Soviet industry moves to ``self-financing'' and cost accounting. The essence of the change is simple, says Alexander Baranov, editor of the newspaper Socialist Industry: An enterprise's income must cover its expenses. Day-to-day administration and planning will pass to the factories, while the role of central ministries and planning bodies will be limited to long-term planning. Bonuses for efficient work will increase. Inefficient enterprises will be allowed to go bankrupt. The whole of industry and agriculture should be working under the new system by the end of 1989.
June 1988: Nineteenth conference of the Soviet Communist Party - the first since 1941, and a major link in the reform process, says Nikolai Shishlin, deputy head of the party Central Committee's propaganda department. Earlier this year, another Central Committee official noted that previous conferences had changed party statutes, launched important policies, and altered the composition of the party leadership.
After June, the timetable for change becomes less precise. Reformers say, however, that the following changes are vital:
1) Cut subsidies and reform prices. The state spends 80 billion rubles a year ($1.16 trillion, at the official rate of exchange), about 19 percent of its budget, in subsidies on food, housing, farm machinery, and other goods, according to official estimates. Meat, for example, reportedly sells for 40 percent of actual cost.
Timing: under discussion. Around 1989 or 1990, according to Abel Aganbegyan, one of Gorbachev's economic advisers. Price specialists want pricing and subsidy reforms introduced together. Otto Latsis, deputy editor of the theoretical journal Kommunist, however, feels that retail price changes - technically relatively simple, though politically very sensitive - should come first. ``I personally feel that one can't wait three years,'' he says.
Methods: under discussion. Most reform economists say the changes will come in stages. Sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya believes that the amount spent on subsidies should be redirected to the consumer in the form of higher wages and pensions. Retail price reform, however, has to be preceded by careful explanation and political preparation, Mr. Latsis stresses. The information program is already under way, he noted, but ``our propaganda organs don't understand very well what they're explaining.''
2) Halve the bureaucracy.
Timing: unclear. Mr. Baranov anticipates the cutback will take one to 1 years, starting probably in 1989.
Methods: natural attrition, reassignment, and retraining, according to Baranov. The government is working on provisions to ease the transition, Baranov says. These include full pay for people who are looking for new work. Reductions have already begun. The first big cut came in November 1985 with the formation of the state agricultural and industrial complex (Agroprom), which merged five ministries and cut staff by 40 percent.