Soviet citizens back democratic reforms but balk at free-market system, poll finds

July 28, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Soviet citizens, while obsessed with their country's economic plight, overwhelmingly oppose private ownership of basic industries and have serious reservations about transforming their state-operated economy into a free-market system, a new poll shows.

The poll, designed to explore the attitudes of ordinary citizens regarding the momentous issues facing their country, found that only a bare majority favor the kind of free-market economy demanded by the Bush administration as a precondition for Western aid.

Moreover, even many who favor such a policy, in theory, are opposed to it in specific details. Not only did 76 percent of those surveyed in the republic of Russia and 86 percent in the Ukraine favor continuing state control of heavy industry, but substantial majorities also favor state control of banks, schools, electrical utilities, health care, the telephone system, trains, buses and radio and television.

Conducted by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press and released just days before the Moscow summit, the poll suggests that President Bush is in the anomalous position of pressing Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to do something that U.S. politicians -- including Mr. Bush -- are almost never willing to do themselves: to plunge into a drastic change in basic policy when public opinion appears strongly opposed to the step.

U.S. officials, along with most professional economists, are convinced that the Soviet economy cannot pull out of its present tailspin unless free-market policies are adopted quickly. But the apparent depth of popular resistance to such policies makes it clear that Mr. Gorbachev faces enormous political problems in administering that prescription.

Only in farming do Soviet citizens appear to have a clear preference for private ownership -- perhaps because it is widely understood in the Soviet Union that the private garden plots permitted by the Communist system in recent years have provided a large proportion of the country's fresh fruits and vegetables.

Ironically, the magnitude of Mr. Gorbachev's problem is underscored by another of the poll's findings: By substantial margins, Soviet citizens say that they favor the more democratic, multiparty political system that is emerging in their country.

The poll results, which represent the initial phase of a broad study of Soviet and European attitudes, already have been circulated among top White House officials.

"Gorbachev has a very big job ahead of him of convincing his people that they should go to a free-market economy," Marlin Fitzwater, Mr. Bush's press secretary, acknowledged in commenting on the findings.

"The people acknowledge their system has failed and they are suffering deprivation, but they have no understanding of capitalism and, indeed, of our system of freedom, and this poll verifies that," Mr. Fitzwater said.

But the president made clear at the recent economic summit of the seven major industrial democracies that the United States would not consider direct financial aid to the Soviets until they were further along in reforming their economy. The summit nations did approve a package of technical assistance, including associate membership for the Soviet Union in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

While a highlight of the Moscow summit will be the signing of a treaty reducing the strategic nuclear arsenals of both countries, broader questions about the future of U.S.-Soviet relations and the issue of providing Western aid to prop up the collapsing Soviet economy will be major topics of discussion.

The Times Mirror poll -- conducted in May and covering 2,210 people in European Russia, the Ukraine and Lithuania -- indicates that ingrained Communist doctrine against entrepreneurs, the pursuit of profits and allowing some to earn and accumulate more money than others pose high hurdles for Mr. Gorbachev's economic reform program.

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