One of Mikhail Gorbachev's principal economic advisers yesterday distanced the Soviet president from a controversial new economic reform package that Gorbachev had embraced on May 23, blaming the program on Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov and his council of ministers.
Stanislav Shatalin was joined by other economists and academics traveling with Gorbachev in holding Ryzhkov and his fellow ministers responsible for the reform package, which sparked panic buying that emptied Moscow grocery shelves last week. He said Gorbachev's television appeal Sunday urging Soviet consumers to remain calm over planned price increases did not signify approval of the program. "The president and the president's council feel quite differently," continued Shatalin, a member of the council. "There is a very big difference between their position and the position of the government."
Just 10 days ago, the reform package, which called for doubling the price of bread on July 1, was approved by a joint meeting of Gorbachev's presidential council and the council of ministers. Gorbachev presided at the meeting.
This rare public airing of a split at the top of the Soviet government took place at a discussion between Gorbachev's economic and science advisers and American scientists, economists and business leaders sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. Economics dominated the two-hour discussion.
Ryzhkov had been attacked by opposition legislators and Communist Party conservatives for the economic package and his government faced a no-confidence vote in the Supreme Soviet. But this was the first suggestion that Gorbachev opposed the plan, which would raise the price of bread and could double or triple the cost other food products in coming months.
Tass, the official government news agency, reported the May 22 announcement by government spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov that "the presidential council today approved" the reform program drawn up by Ryzhkov. Speaking about the reforms to congressional leaders in Washington yesterday, Gorbachev gave no hint that he opposed them. He strongly defended the need to raise bread prices, the most controversial element of the Ryzhkov reforms.
Nonetheless, Shatalin yesterday labeled the economic reform program a non-starter that does not move the "bankrupt" Soviet economy from a centrally planned communist system to one run by market forces. He said that many key elements were not considered while others were done "in a slipshod fashion."
Vladen Martynov, director of the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, called the reform program "very bad" with "many technical mistakes." He later sought out a reporter to underscore the point that economics is the responsibility of Ryzhkov's council of ministers, "but they don't understand the market system."
Shatalin said that he and other Gorbachev advisers are seeking "other options" to be put in place no sooner than Sept. 1 to avoid "a total collapse" of the economy resulting from the increase in bread prices.
Georgi Arbatov, director of the Institute for the Study of the U.S.A. and Canada, brushed aside a government request for a referendum on the reform package as an attempt by Ryzhkov and his council of ministers " to avoid responsibility for the program. "There has to be personal responsibility," Arbatov said. "People don't understand what a market economy is. It has to be explained to them."
At which point Shatalin interjected, "If we called a referendum on a shift to a market system, the answer would be, 'No. No. No.' "
Gorbachev had already distanced himself from the idea of a popular referendum by noting that Soviet law provided no mechanism for such a vote on government policies.
Shatalin said that the Soviet economy had reached the point of no return in its shift toward a market economy and could no longer go back to the centrally controlled Stalinist system. "Even the most reactionary thinkers understand there is no possibility of return, although some still think that as bad as it was the old system provided some floor for the population," he said.
He likened the Soviet economy to "the shattered vase that is not going to be glued back together."
If Ryzhkov is fired or resigns, Gorbachev will be able to appoint a new prime minister. Many radical politicians have said that in order to build a wider coalition in the government, Gorbachev should consider appointing a non-Communist or, at least, a party member with a stronger reputation as a market economist.