The Soviets: Changing the Guard

After Brezhnev's 18-year rule, the U.S.S.R. gets an enigmatic new leader

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Murray Feshbach, America's leading expert on Soviet population trends, believes that the present 2% rate of Soviet economic growth could drop to zero or even go into the minus column because of more shortages of skilled labor, especially in European Russia, where most of the country's industry is situated.

Diverse groups within the society will be struggling for their share of shrinking national resources in the post-Brezhnev era. The Soviet leadership under Andropov is expected to maintain Soviet military spending at its present high levels, estimated to be 12% to 14% of the G.N.P. What is left will have to be spread more thinly. Says Robert Legvold, an expert on East-West problems at the Council on Foreign Relations: "The Soviet Union simply does not have the resources to invest in all the necessary sectors. The leadership is going to have to make tough decisions on allocations of capital, raw materials and labor."

The loser in this battle for allocations will be the Soviet consumer. Accustomed to a steady, though scarcely dramatic, rise in the standard of living under Brezhnev, Soviet citizens may have to settle for no further improvement in the 1980s. But they are not likely to rebel openly. Lacking any genuine forum in which to express dissatisfaction, Soviet consumers will probably do little more than grumble. Andropov, with his KGB background, may deal more harshly with strikes or other eruptions of anger that might occur. Says Historian Walter Laqueur: "Expect tighter discipline rather than liberalism, but expect some economic reforms."

At the same time, the new regime may be obliged to use intimidation or raw force in Eastern Europe, where it might face unrest and rebellion, similar to that in Poland, during the rest of the 1980s. "The Soviet imperial system is suffering from a sickness, a deep systemic crisis," says Bialer. "For the Kremlin, Poland is not a cold, but pneumonia." With their stagnant economy, the Soviets will not be able to apply the balm of aid to their satellite states. This, in turn, could plunge the fragile economies of Eastern Europe into even deeper trouble.

Therein lies the irony of the Brezhnev legacy: all of the Soviet Union's gigantic military might has not proved sufficient to convince its leaders that they can depend on enjoying either domestic tranquillity or genuine security along the country's borders, even those it shares with Communist neighbors. On the contrary, insofar as the military sector has drained off resources from the civilian economy, the U.S.S.R.'s war machine has weakened the country. According to some reports, a number of party officials and theoreticians have even begun asking whether, as a result, their country ought to shift its concept of strength and security from a narrow, strictly military definition to a broader one, embracing economic strength and social stability as well. In other words, should the classic guns-vs.-butter conflict be resolved, for once, in a way that gives at least equal emphasis to butter?

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