The Soviet Union's civilian economy is headed for new disappointment and only scattered major successes in the next five years if recent history is any guide to assessing the general growth guideline unveiled today.
As called for in the draft plan for 1981-85, an annual 5 percent expansion of Soviet gross national product seems beyond the reach of most sectors. Soviet figures show the economy grew between 3 and 4 percent through the 1970s, despite goals nearly a third higher.
Broken promises of "more and better" littered the decade. Even major gains, such as the hugh increases that vaulted the Soviet Union to first place among the world's petroleum producers were achieved at great cost and with wasteful practices that mortgaged future retuns for short-term gain.
This is not a promising foundation for fulfilling goals, and Moscow knows it. But the aging Brezhnev leadership has no inclination to tamper with the basic structure of the economic system that gives strong party control at the expense of experimentation and meaningful incentives to encourage worker initiative.
The plan foresees a slight, 1 percent growth in petroleum production, which implies further strains on Soviet energy resources as domestic needs expand and East Bloc economic partners seek expanded energy deliveries to serve their own marginally growing economies. But the Soviets fell well short of their own projections, producing 4.2 billion barrels for this year instead of the 4.5 billion barrels called for in the 1976-80 party plan. This is an unpromising harbinger of possibly severe energy problems here in the early 1980s.
The anticipated star energy performer, natural gas production, is expected to increase by 50 percent. This goal makes clear a continued shift to it to replace the oil shipments going to Western trading partners, which provide critically needed hard currency. Under the draft plan, natural gas would top 640 billion cubic meters in 1985, up from this year's total of 435 billion cubic meters. But that crucially important increase hinges on massive technical and financial deals with the West that could be shattered if Soviet troops ever were to intervene in Poland.
On these grounds alone, the plan implies strong internal economic pressures against the use of military force in Poland for fear it could jeopardize Western assistance needed to bring gas production to levels required for even minimum growth. Recent strong warnings from Western powers sharpen this point for the Kremlin and its powerful state planning committee.
The plan, to be adopted at February's 26th Communist Party Congress and made law later next year by the figurehead parliament, sets top priority on expanding consumer industries about 6 percent yearly. This seems unrealistic, for despite many leadership promises of better quality and quantity of goods for Soviet shoppers, the consumer sector repeatedly has been forced to give way on expansion to such deeply troubled areas as chemicals, steel, fertilizers, coal, transport and agriculture.
Meat production is to rise 2 million tons to 17.5 million tons by 1985, despite big distress slaughters that have cut herds in the aftermath of three disastrous harvests in the past five years and the effects of the U.S. grain embargo. A grain harvest increase of 20 percent, to 240 million tons by 1985 from the current five-year average of about 200 million tons, will be hard to achieve as well.
The guidelines indicate that most growth in output must come from higher worker productivity, with new construction limited in the western Soviet Union only to essential facilities, while industries are to concentrate on completing unfinished factories and enterprises. Up to 80 percent of the industrial plants begun in recent years remain incomplete, wasting billions of rubles in investments.
The plan asserts that about 90 percent of the economic increase charted for the Soviet Union thus must come from higher labor productivity. Without meaningful incentives to spur labor, this goal is unobtainable under present conditions of work. Increases in labor productivity in the last decade hovered around 3 percent.
Under this five-year plan, the Soviet economy will indeed expand and living standards probably will marginally improve for millions.