CAN THE SOVIET UNION CATCH UP?

What is this recent reform jazz all about? Can the Soviet Union catch up with the United States?

If you read U.S.S.R. leader Mikhail Gorbachev's late January 84-page report to the party's central committee, you will see that the man is preaching action, now. Change, now. Democracy, now.Should we be jittery?

Not really.

Can the Soviets catch up?

No, they can't.

But this needs explanation. Notice, I did not say they never will catch up.

Already, the Soviets have caught up in some categories. And they could win the economic race by default, that is, if our sluggish economy becomes more so, and Uncle Sam keeps tripping himself up.

Put another way: If the U.S.S.R. makes progress (and the Soviet people are intelligent and, it seems, a great many support the Gorbachev call for action), and the United States does little else except stumble (question: can we keep running fat budget deficits and uncontrollable trade deficits and not suffer?), then we will assist the U.S.S.R. in overtaking us, just as we are

helping Japan teach us how to make cars.

The U.S.S.R. has already caught up or even run ahead of us in production of steel, gas, oil, cement and tractors. It does extremely well in some fields.

Experts say the U.S.S.R. is the global leader in advanced welding technology. The Soviets are constructing an atom smasher that is probably bigger than anybody's in the west. They make wide use of atomic icebreakers.

But technologically speaking, the U.S.S.R. remains perhaps 15-20 years behind us. Mr. Gorbachev still talks about the need for Soviet factories to make goods that are of world standard quality.

Talk to any number of Western or Japanese businessmen in Moscow and they weep in your lap: Yes, we want so much to buy more from the Soviets so we can increase our trade, but the quality of their goods is so bad we can't sell them in the West.

In his long January statement, Mr. Gorbachev said bluntly: He who is not in the lead in scientific ideas risks falling back in everything. He admitted that many Soviet enterprises were putting out products that are hopelessly obsolete and that come under serious criticism by consumers and hold back the country's scientific and technological progress.

But is there anything new in the Gorbachev approach?

Yes there is.

Western sources note more bite in Mr. Gorbachev's words than in those of previous leaders. They say Mr. Gorbachev is calling for more criticism and self-criticism. They say he is saying things that were not said before, or said only obliquely.

Some examples:

Mr. Gorbachev speaks about the country being too timid to tackle some major problems in everyday life.

He speaks about the need for free labor and free thought in a free country.

And, there ought to be no off-limits for criticism in Soviet society, and this fully applies to the mass media.

Also: We need democratization in order to move ahead.

(The U.S.S.R. leader used the words democracy, democratism or democratization at least 50 times in his oral report to the party.)

Some Western experts, of course, blame the Soviet system for the mess it's in. Others say the U.S.S.R. can make splendid progress when it needs to. They say that if the Soviets want to make rapid strides in one specific sector, say gas and oil, they can put their energies into it and do it.

Other sources speak of such problems as the so-called Russian work ethic. Why, the sources ask, should Soviet workers do a better job? To get more pay? But what can they do with more rubles? There is a chronic shortage of high- quality consumer goods.

Nevertheless, new ideas are being pushed.

Experiments are being tried in the U.S.S.R. economy. Thus, self-financing is now practiced in some enterprises. A number of U.S.S.R. enterprises are being allowed to engage directly in foreign trade. Joint ventures are sought with foreign companies.

While the Kremlin wants brisker trade with the West and Japan, its policy of greater self-reliance and catching up with these countries could eventually mean less business for us. But no foreign trader here predicts such Soviet propulsion in this century.

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