Shortage of ink threatens to halt Soviet newspapers

September 21, 1990|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Soviet newspapers and magazines, already hit hard by a paper shortage, may have to halt publication within two or three weeks because of a critical deficit of printer's ink, the head of the country's largest publishing house said yesterday.

"We have no printer's ink," V. L. Leontiev told Soviet television. He is the director of the Pravda publishing house, which prints 40 magazines and 14 newspapers. "The two factories of the State Committee on Printing have stopped production because of the lack of pigments and other materials," he said.

The ink crisis, which Mr. Leontiev blamed on the Soviet Union's shortage of hard currency, is the latest in a chain of high-profile shortages that most recently affected bread and cigarettes. It comes as the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet meets today, possibly to vote on alternative programs for the transition to a market economy.

Some suspicious citizens and legislators accuse the bureaucracy of engineering the shortages to discredit radical officials elected last spring.

But many economists say the snowballing problems simply reflect the disintegration of an inefficient, aging industrial base, complicated by a weakening of central control from Moscow, proliferating strikes and blockades, and a shortfall of foreign currency to pay for imports.

Mr. Leontiev said the reason the ink is drying up is very simple: The government has not allocated hard currency to buy the ingredients necessary to make it. Those ingredients always have been imported, he said.

"It's not a bolt from the blue. It's been known from the beginning of the year that there was a problem," he said.

The crisis -- and Mr. Leontiev's response -- typify the problems plaguing the ossified, super-centralized Soviet economy: Only two factories make printer's ink, and they are dependent on government handouts to import supplies.

Meanwhile, the director of a massive publishing conglomerate, rather than seeking an innovative solution to a problem he has known about for months, does nothing and complains that bureaucrats higher up in the hierarchy are to blame.

Because of a severe foreign currency crunch, partly a result of declining oil exports, the Soviet Union fell behind this year in payment of more than $100 million in import bills.

A number of suppliers have cut off deliveries, including paper companies in Finland that provided a large percentage of Soviet paper. At the same time, some Soviet paper plants closed or curtailed production because of pollution problems.

As a result, many publications were in deep trouble long before the ink shortage. Children's textbooks and notebooks are in extremely short supply. Most subscribers to Novy Mir, a highly respected literary monthly, are just now getting their April or May issues.

Some provincial papers have skipped dozens of issues in the past year because there was nothing to print them on.

Even Izvestia, perhaps the country's most respected daily newspaper, recently apologized to 700,000 readers in the Ukraine who were not receiving their copies.

Mikhail N. Poltaranin, the new minister of the press and mass media for the Russian Federation, said in a recent interview that the underlying reason for the shortage is meager paper production in this wooded land: Russia produces eight times less paper per capita than the United States.

But he said the problem might be eased if the Communist Party stopped printing so much irrelevant material.

"Mountains of paper are expended on books about Lenin, about the leading role of the Communist Party, about socialist competition, on various political brochures. Let's declare a three-year moratorium on these publications. What resources would be freed up!" he told the weekly Knizhnoye Obozreniye.

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