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How Soviet postal regulations cramp perestroika

MIKHAIL GORBACHEV's program of reform has opened doors to the Soviet Union, but the gate of the Soviet post office remains shut on the import of gifts from the West. These restrictions are particularly frustrating at holiday time, when many Americans are mailing gifts to friends and relatives abroad. For instance, you can send your Russian grandmother all your silver and gold, but only two pairs of shoes, and one dress - a new one. And be prepared to pay a stiff duty. Don't even think about sending her a Bible, a card that plays ``Happy Holidays,'' or even slightly worn clothes.

The postal regulations governing the import of such articles ``intended as gifts for personal use'' to Soviet citizens are punitive to both the individual and the Soviet economy.

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These rules penalize those with ties to the West and simultaneously allow the government to profit from these ties. But relaxing them could raise the ``people-to-people'' level of East-West relations, as outlined in the Helsinki accords, by making goods available to Soviet consumers.

According to the United States Postal Service's version of the April 1988 International Mail Manual, only 34 kinds of items intended solely as personal gifts may enter the USSR.

While silver, gold, and platinum articles are allowed in ``unlimited'' numbers per parcel, only two pair of shoes are admitted. ``Overcoats, dresses, suits, skirts, trousers, and coats'' are limited to one per package. And duties are exorbitant on many of these items.

Given Mr. Gorbachev's determination to increase quantity and quality of consumer goods, and the poor quality and high prices of Soviet versions of these articles, this policy does not benefit the Soviet economy.

Cameras, radios, TVs, video recorders, film, cameras, tapes, videocassettes, and recording equipment of any kind may not enter the country in this way. Soviet hunger for these products can be met only at great cost in the black market.

Apart from some sweets, and caffeine and tobacco products, all food products are proscribed, as is used clothing.

While Gorbachev has ostensibly improved his relationship with the church, ``All literature and plastic works of art of a religious nature'' are banned.

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As might be expected, ``foreign currency ... bonds ... [and] securities,'' as well as Soviet rubles, are prohibited. Trafficking on the black market in foreign currencies remains a criminal offense.

In a lighter vein, ``fashion catalogs'' are also a no-no, as are ``musical [greeting] cards,'' because they indicate how far Soviet reality is behind the West.

The lack of better goods, such as fashionable and well-made clothing, jewelry, watches, and light durable goods including radios and stereos, acts as a brake on the process of perestroika. It blunts citizen enthusiasm for what is viewed more and more as another series of pie-in-the-sky promises - which the Soviet system is notorious for not keeping.

It's different in some other Soviet-bloc countries. For example, Poland permits foreign currency to be transferred from the West to a family in that country. This cherished money can then be deposited in special bank accounts at high rates of interest, serving both individual and government hard-currency needs.

Used clothing and a greater variety of effects may also be imported into Poland, enabling American families even of modest means to improve the lot of their loved ones. The Polish government views this as a help to a strained economy.

In contrast, Soviet restrictions now serve only as reminders that the Helsinki process is an ideal which the Soviet authorities continue to fall short of, despite the new openness.

Letting goods in this way would not solve the structural problems in the Soviet economy. But it would not be insignificant, especially as a short-run measure.

Abel Aganbegyan, Gorbachev's chief economic adviser, has said the Soviet government plans to spend several billion dollars of foreign-currency reserves to purchase ``cheap'' consumer goods in Hong Kong, Singapore, and elsewhere to meet rising Soviet consumer expectations and aid reforms.

If Gorbachev is intent on speeding reforms, however, he could, with just a stroke of the pen, help move consumer goods of greater quality and variety into the economy with no cost to the government.

Vladimir Wozniuk teaches in the department of government and law at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., and writes frequently on Soviet and East European affairs.

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