Neighboring Poland's dramatic labor and political crisis has wrought major changes in Soviet economic goals and plans to expand energy exports.
It is well known here that early last October, the Politburo, alarmed at the implications of Poland's turmoil for its own continual neglect of higher living standards for Soviets, scrapped proposals that -- like previous five-year plans -- favored heavy industry over consumer industries.
Instead, with a wary eye on the restive Poles and rising shortages of basic foodstuffs like meat and potatoes, the Brezhnev leadership voted to reduce industrial expansion and add the extra resources to improving consumer goods.
Under the draft version of the plan eventually made public in December and scheduled for approval by the Communist Party at its 26th Party Congress in February, consumer-goods output through 1985 would be increased by 27-to-29 percent, while industrial production would be held to 26-to-28 percent. At first glance, this hardly seems enough of a difference to signal a major reassessment and altered direction.
But the Soviets have traditionally devoted far more civilian economic resources to heavy industry -- despite endless promises by Brezhnev and others, and significant press attention to consumer shortages and finger-pointings at lax consumer industries. For example, the current 1976-80 plan called for industrial production increases to exceed consumer expansion by 8-to-10 percent. Since the plan's targets are deliberately beyond what the party actually expects to achieve, and instead are used in part as morale boosters, the new targets have as much political as actual economic meaning in gauging the leadership's concerns.
Meanwhile, the Polish crisis also overshadows the most ambitious East-West energy project ever proposed by Moscow: the $11 billion west Siberian gas pipeline, which would tap one of the world's largest proven natural-gas reserves and eventually could carry up to 65 billion cubic meters of gas more than 3,700 miles to lucrative hard-currency markets in Western Europe.
The pipeline, four times longer than the Alaskan pipeline, would be one of the biggest financial deals with the West in Soviet history, carrying potentially enormous political and economic consequences of its own for Soviet-Western European relations.
The advantage from Moscow's point of view is that the West would finance almost the entire deal, with the Soviets paying off the debt and interest with gas, at prices that seem certain to increase in years to come. Once the debt is repaid, the continuing shipments could finance major new projects or investment in Western technology the Soviets can't adequately produce themselves.
At the same time, Moscow needs the gas project, or something like it, if it is to relieve its own increasingly pinched energy supplies. Although the world's largest oil producer and one of the top four petroleum exporters -- a fact that has strengthened its political influence in Western Europe -- the Soviet Union may be reaching the limits of its oil production.
The latest official figures show Soviet oil production increases have trailed off substantially in recent months, implying Moscow may indeed by hovering on the brink of the overall decline predicted more than three years ago by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Crude oil production in November fell to 50.1 million tons from 51.5 million tons in October. Overall, the Soviet Union produced 551 million tons for the first 11 months of 1980. This is substantially below the 606-million-tons target, which the leadership some months ago confidently predicted would be achieved. The 1981 plan target is 610 million tons, but the shortfalls so far seem to put that out of reach.
Moscow has indicated to East Bloc allies that it will increase energy supplies to their hard-pressed economies in the new decade, and clearly is relying on natural gas to fulfill that promise, since oil and coal production increases are not substantial under the 1981-85 plan.
But West Germany, France, Italy and the countries of Northern Europe would find it difficult to proceed with a major deal such as the pipeline from Siberia if the Soviets intervene militarily in Poland. Moscow knows, from both the Carter administration's grain embargo, and recent NATO declarations, that the capitalist West could respond in a serious way if Poland were invaded.
Although Soviet patriotic self-confidence would never allow Moscow to admit the relationship between the west Siberian pipeline project and possible restraints on its own impulses to impose Marxist orthodoxy on the Poles, it must be a very real factor when the Kremlin's conservative old leaders sit down together at their twice-weekly Politburo meetings to review their situation and opportunities.
At the same time, the Kremlin knows from experience that the West's resolve to mix politics and business is less than successful. The Carter White House changed its mind several times on whether to approve a drill bit factory for the Soviets before finally saying "no" to the project several weeks ago. The company, Dresser Industries, said the facility was nearly completed and that Moscow could get whatever else remained to be purchased from other Western countries. Meanwhile, the French have picked up major parts of a steel-rolling complex also canceled by Washington in retaliation for the Afghanistan invasion in December 1979.