The rigidly centralized economy of the Soviet Union is likely to remain "in the doldrums" in the 1980s, "enmeshed in inefficiency but avoiding collapse," according to a comprehensive congressional report released yesterday.
The report of 1,000-plus pages, compiled by the Joint Economic Committee from more than 50 papers by Soviet specialists in and out of the U.S. government, also concludes that western efforts to influence the Kremlin through trade embargoes "run the risk of boomeranging" by damaging the economic interests of the countries applying the pressure.
An overview prepared for the committee by Martin J. Kohn of the Central Intelligence Agency's Office of Soviet Analysis notes that the average annual rate of growth of the Soviet economy declined from 3.7 percent for the period 1971-78 to 1.3 percent in 1979-81, using western measures. The annual rate of growth "might go as high as 2 percent" over the next several years, Kohn wrote.
"Poor performance in the farm sector, reflecting a succession of poor harvests, played an important part in the decline in real growth," he wrote. "But the slowdown was pervasive. Growth in industrial production has steadily declined, reaching a post-World War II low of 2 percent in 1981." Kohn noted that Soviet leaders' own assessments of their country's economic woes have been "virtually indistinguishable" from western analyses, stressing such factors as reduced growth in the labor force, the drying up of easily accessible and extractable energy resources, a lack of appropriate incentives and managerial arrangements to promote new technology and energy conservation, and chronic shortages of consumer goods, which impair motivation to work.
Where western and Soviet analysts differ, however, is in their perceptions of what is required to re-inject momentum into the Soviet economy.
Western specialists believe that sweeping systematic changes are needed that would introduce critical elements of market pricing and incentives. Soviet leaders, despite persistent failure of essentially piecemeal ameliorative measures, still seem convinced that "tinkering can make the system work," Kohn wrote.
Partially as a result of that official optimism, the current Soviet five-year economic plan (for 1981-85) is replete with output targets "far above achievable levels," he wrote.
Kohn, who completed his paper before the death of President Leonid I. Brezhnev last November, said the odds against any drastic overhaul by his successor, Yuri V. Andropov, were high, because the country is ruled by "the same gerontocracy with the same distaste for radical innovation."
But John P. Hardt, a senior Soviet specialist at the Library of Congress, writing after Brezhnev's death, noted that Andropov's early focus on revising the economy "not only suggests concern about the seriousnesss of the problems but also expectation that policy changes within his power may improve both qualitative and quantitative performance."
Hardt noted that Andropov has placed increased emphasis on investment and consumption--policies that may invigorate the economy but will squeeze defense spending. Andropov has also reduced the economic subsidy to Soviet-bloc countries in eastern Europe by cutting back on deliveries of oil and gas at below-market prices, and has stressed greater reliance on technology transfer from Japan and the West.
The study, produced every three years, touched on several topics. Some of the findings:
* Trade sanctions. Any instrument of leverage is likely to be only transitorily effective. The intended target is likely to circumvent the pressures, and the country applying them is likely to suffer, leading to appeals for the sanctions to be diluted or eliminated.
* Energy. The Soviet Union "still finds energy sufficiency a potential Achilles heel." To offset cresting oil output and problems with the coal industry, the Kremlin has undertaken a crash program to develop its Siberian natural gas deposits. The risk is that by the mid-1980s it could wind up with a gas glut and a shortage of all other forms of energy.
* Steel. The Soviet steel industry, largest in the world, "has become a major drag on the economy. Shortages of steel, especially high-quality products, are holding back the growth of the civilian economy . . . . Large purchases of steel products will be needed through the 1980s."
Technology. Soviet enterprises have been unable to assimilate western technology successfully, which may partly explain a decline in imports of western machinery in the late 1970s.
* Living standards. Real per capita consumption has risen at an average rate of 3.4 percent annually since 1950. But in the late 1970s, Soviet living standards were one-third of the U.S. level and less than half the level of France and West Germany.
* Health. Life expectancy of Soviet males is estimated at 61.9 years, down from 66. Rates of heart disease more than doubled from 1960 to 1979. About half of all those hospitalized in the Soviet Union have illnesses associated with alcoholism.