Gorbachev calls on workers to police food supplies

December 01, 1990|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- President Mikhail S. Gorbachev ordered yesterday the formation of workers' committees, backed by the police and KGB, to find out where food and consumer goods have disappeared and punish those responsible for the shortages.

The KGB said it was creating a special food protection division to investigate cases of food sabotage and ensure the proper delivery of food aid from the West.

The workers' groups, to be formed at all workplaces and educational institutions within 10 days, will have the power to inspect factories, warehouses, stores and restaurants and order them closed temporarily if abuses are found.

They can recommend suspension, dismissal or criminal prosecution of people responsible for mismanagement or profiteering.

The decree came in response to intense public frustration and anger at ever-emptier stores and ever-longer lines for basic foods in many Soviet cities.

But the workers' groups raised the danger of vigilante justice against cooperatives and other new businesses selling food at uncontrolled prices, already the object of considerable wrath from ordinary people and Communist bureaucrats.

They also revealed that, despite his great achievements as a reformer, Mr. Gorbachev retains many of the instincts of traditional Soviet authoritarianism.

Earlier this week, the Soviet president took a firm stand against selling land to private owners, seen by many economists as the only hope for turning around Soviet agriculture and improving the food supply.

"I am resolutely against private ownership of land," he told Moscow Communists. He said he saw a role for private property mainly, if not exclusively, in small businesses in the service sector.

"Worker control," by contrast, is an old and well-tried weapon from the economic arsenal of Soviet socialism. The honest worker's fight against "wreckers" and "saboteurs" dates from Lenin's time and was exploited by Stalin to disguise mass political terror.

Mr. Gorbachev's stand against private ownership of land played a role in the deep division of the Russian Congress of People's Deputies in four days of heated debate on the issue this week.

Many deputies cited the evident success of private property as the basis of agricultural abundance in the West. They also brandished an astonishing statistic from Soviet agriculture: While only 3 percent of cultivated land is in peasants' small personal plots, they produce 60 percent of the entire Soviet potato crop, 30 percent of the meat and vegetables, and 27 percent of the milk.

But other deputies, with Mr. Gorbachev's encouragement, evoked the ideological bogyman of land speculation to defend the current system.

The loudest voices against land sales came from chairmen of state and collective farms, who control the other 97 percent of the land. They accept only the need for long-term land leasing, which already exists. Farmers leasing land usually get only whatever land and equipment the local state or collective farm chooses to give them, so leasing has moved very slowly against the resistance of local agricultural bureaucrats.

While the congress yesterday gave preliminary approval to the Russian government's proposed agricultural program, which includes private land ownership, it will vote on the program point by point Monday.

The KGB's involvement in the food issue is the latest step in its 2-year-old campaign to improve its image and protect its budget as its political police role gradually comes to an end.

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