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Soviet Reforms at the Crossroads

Political battle is just beginning over country's shift from rigid planning to a market economy

ECONOMIC plans are nothing new for the Soviet Union. But the two programs put before the Soviet people this past week mark a historic departure. For the first time, the Soviet Union must choose, not only between plans but between systems.

The choice is at once ideological, economic, and political. The decision could determine the fate of not only the prime minister but the very existence of his ministries.

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The debate is propelled by an atmosphere of crisis and systemic breakdown.

``The economic situation in the country is catastrophic,'' economist Abel Aganbegyan told the Soviet parliament. ``And it is much worse than it appears on the surface.''

Two different visions of the Soviet Union emerge from the documents and public debate now under way. The government's more moderate plan seeks to modify the state-run socialist economy with the efficiency and bounty of the market. The Soviet Union remains a centralized nation, though distributing greater power and autonomy to the 15 republics.

The radical plan from the Russian Republic is a pragmatic march to capitalism, resembling in concept the United States more than it does even Sweden. The country would become a voluntary union of sovereign republics, somewhat like the 1777 Articles of Confederation, the American states' first attempt at unity.

The radical plan, drawn up by a group of economists organized by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, is a document remarkably free of the ideological cant usually found here. In clear, detailed terms, it describes the decades-long process of economic collapse in the Soviet Union and offers a step-by-step, 500-day dismantling of all the basic institutions and their replacement by a relatively unfettered market economy.

There are only three options in this crisis, according to the 500-day program - gradual reform, roll-back, or radical reform. The first option, the government's course, has already been ``exhausted,'' they argue.

A return to a command economy, they say, ``is realistic, since it has quite a few supporters both in the power structures and among certain groups of the population, weary of instability in everyday life.'' But it ``cannot be done without mass political repression'' and will not solve any economic problems.

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The word ``socialism'' never appears in this document. Such ideological distinctions are meaningless, economist Stanislav Shatalin, the group's leader, told parliament on Monday.

``We choose not between London and Paris but between life and death,'' he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Leonid Abalkin argued in parliament that the radical 500-day plan is ``shock therapy'' that the economy and the population are unprepared for. It is unrealistic in its projections of the inflation and unemployment that will be caused during the transition period, he said.

But ``one will understand nothing in the current economic dispute if he forgets that a great political game is going on,'' Mr. Abalkin admitted in an earlier interview with the weekly Economics and Life.

The formal debate in the Soviet parliament is scheduled to end with a vote on Friday. The parliaments of the republics are going through the same process, though the Russian parliament has already moved swiftly to back the radical scheme. The 500-day plan sets Oct. 1 as its starting date and Russian Prime Minister Ivan Silayev told reporters that Russia will go ahead on its own, if necessary, though that path would be more difficult.

Mr. Gorbachev has backed the radical plan, with some evident reluctance. He has lost confidence in his own government's ability to resolve the deepening crisis and appears convinced by its detailed nature of the plan's practicability.

Gorbachev is also bowing to the political logic of the shift of power away from Moscow to the republics.

The key fact, as he has noted in public statements, is that the plan has the backing not only of Russia, the largest republic, but was also drawn up with the participation of all the republics except Estonia.

Gorbachev is clearly discomfited, however, by the ideological and political implications of his decision.

He told the Supreme Soviet on Monday that calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov and his Cabinet are ``completely unacceptable.''

More revealingly, the Soviet leader devoted the bulk of his half-hour speech to refuting the idea that the radical plan ``leads to capitalism.'' By offering multiple forms of property, he argued, they will end ``alienation from means of production and property,'' thereby finding ``the solution of the socialist revolution's fundamental concern.'' He seeks to avoid the charge of betrayal, in part by offering the surprise idea of a referendum solely on the issue of private ownership of land, long defined by Soviet Communists as the key dividing line with capitalism.

Whatever the parliamentary decision, the final political battle over this historic choice has only begun.

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