Gorbachev Enlists Soviet Congress in Urgent Reform Drive
IN a speech yesterday to the new Congress of People's Deputies, newly elected President Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear that he was planning more than simply offering the new parliament a large share of economic and political power. He was also placing on their shoulders the responsibility for rectifying many of the problems they had complained about during the recent electoral campaign and at the Congress: the crisis in consumer goods, the failure of the government to turn its ambitious plans for reform into reality, and the need to keep the country's massive, conservative, and expensive bureaucracy under constant supervision.
His speech was a work of compromise, aimed at satisfying at least some of the wildly divergent viewpoints represented in the 2,250-member parliament. He combined support for human rights with calls for greater discipline, understanding of the demands put forward by national minorities with warnings that disorder would not be tolerated.
The Soviet leader delivered the speech without his usual flair, stumbling occasionally as he read a prepared text. This may indicate that he had reworked parts of his report at the last moment - perhaps to reflect the many criticisms voiced during the first days of the new Congress.
But he repeatedly used the same word to characterize both the problems facing the nation and the solutions needed to improve the situation: ``urgent.'' He also stressed, however, that there was ``no alternative'' to the ``radical renewal of socialism.''
The convening of the new Congress marked the end of the first stage of political reform, he said. The next stage will involve rebuilding local government to give republican and regional parliaments real power in administering and developing their own areas.
Among the concrete points made in the speech:
Gorbachev revealed for the first time what he said was the country's overall military budget, and proposed further defense cuts.
The military budget for this year amounts to 77.3 billion rubles ($123.68 billion). The 1987-88 military budget had been ``frozen,'' Gorbachev told the Congress. This had produced a saving of 10 billion rubles ($16 billion).
Gorbachev further proposed cutting the 1990-91 military budget by an additional 10 billion rubles, or 14 percent. The Supreme Soviet should discuss this proposal and come up with its own recommendation, he added.
The announcement of further defense cuts was greeted with applause - the reduction of military expenditures had been a popular demand during the March electoral campaign.
Gorbachev's figure for the defense budget appeared to be somewhat under 10 percent of the Soviet national income. This would be about four times the earlier acknowledged defense appropriation for 1988 and 1989, but still below the estimates of many Western analysts. Unofficial Soviet economists, including the highly regarded commentator Vasily Selyunin, have estimated that the defense budget eats up around 20 percent of government income.
Gorbachev repeated his support for an economic system determined by economic principles, not government directive. But he ruled out the idea of a total shift to Western-style market principles.
Such a change, he said, ``would immediately destroy the whole social situation.''
A group of Western economists are known to have been advising the government to adopt a market economy.
But the Soviet leader shifted slightly on the controversial question of imports.
Radical economists like Nikolai Shmelyov have pushed hard for the government to alleviate the grim shortages in consumer goods by importing essential items directly from the West.
After originally dismissing the idea, Gorbachev now seems to feel that it has some merit.
The use of imports, in part to ``replenish the market,'' should not be ruled out, he said.