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Domestic policy in the Gorbachev era was conducted primarily under three programs, whose names became household words: perestroika (restructuring), glasnost (opening), and demokratizatsiya (democratization). The first of these was applied primarily to the economy, but it was meant to refer to society in general. Over the course of Soviet rule, society in the Soviet Union had grown more urbanized, better educated, and more complex. Old methods of exhortation and coercion were inappropriate, yet Brezhnev's government had denied change rather than mastered it. Despite Andropov's efforts to reintroduce some measure of discipline, the communist superpower remained stagnant. Once Gorbachev began to call for bolder reforms, the "acceleration" gave way to perestroika.

The Soviet economic reforms during Gorbachev's initial period (1985-86) were similar to the reforms of previous regimes: they modified the Stalinist system without making truly fundamental changes. The basic principles of central planning remained. The measures proved to be insufficient, as economic growth rates continued to decline and the economy faced severe shortages. Gorbachev and his team of economic advisers then introduced more fundamental reforms, which became known as perestroika (restructuring).

Throughout the early years of his rule, Gorbachev spoke of perestroika, but only in early 1987 did the slogan become a full-scale campaign and yield practical results. At that time, measures were adopted on the formation of cooperatives and joint ventures. At a plenum of the CPSU Central Committee in January 1987, Gorbachev explicitly applied the label to his program to devolve economic and political control. In economics, perestroika meant greater leeway in decision making for plant managers, allowance for a certain degree of individual initiative and the chance to make a profit.

At the June 1987 plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), Gorbachev presented his "basic theses," which laid the political foundation of economic reform for the remainder of the decade. In July 1987, the Supreme Soviet passed the Law on State Enterprises. The law stipulated that state enterprises were free to determine output levels based on demand from consumers and other enterprises. Enterprises had to fulfill state orders, but they could dispose of the remaining output as they saw fit. Enterprises bought inputs from suppliers at negotiated contract prices. Under the law, enterprises became self-financing; that is, they had to cover expenses (wages, taxes, supplies, and debt service) through revenues. No longer was the government to rescue unprofitable enterprises that could face bankruptcy. Finally, the law shifted control over the enterprise operations from ministries to elected workers' collectives. Gosplan's responsibilities were to supply general guidelines and national investment priorities, not to formulate detailed production plans.

The Law on Cooperatives, enacted in May 1987, was perhaps the most radical of the economic reforms during the early part of the Gorbachev regime. For the first time since Lenin's NEP, the law permitted private ownership of businesses in the services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sectors. The law initially imposed high taxes and employment restrictions, but it later revised these to avoid discouraging private-sector activity. Under this provision, cooperative restaurants, shops, and manufacturers became part of the Soviet scene.

Gorbachev brought perestroika to the Soviet Union's foreign economic sector with measures that Soviet economists considered bold at that time. His program virtually eliminated the monopoly that the Ministry of Foreign Trade had had on most trade operations. It permitted the ministries of the various industrial and agricultural branches to conduct foreign trade in sectors under their responsibility rather than having to operate indirectly through the bureaucracy of trade ministry organizations. In addition, regional and local organizations and individual state enterprises were permitted to conduct foreign trade. This change was an attempt to redress a major imperfection in the Soviet foreign trade regime: the lack of contact between Soviet end users and suppliers and their foreign partners.

The most significant of Gorbachev's reforms in the foreign economic sector allowed foreigners to invest in the Soviet Union in the form of joint ventures with Soviet ministries, state enterprises, and cooperatives. The original version of the Soviet Joint Venture Law, which went into effect in June 1987, limited foreign shares of a Soviet venture to 49 percent and required that Soviet citizens occupy the positions of chairman and general manager. After potential Western partners complained, the government revised the regulations to allow majority foreign ownership and control. Under the terms of the Joint Venture Law, the Soviet partner supplied labor, infrastructure, and a potentially large domestic market. The foreign partner supplied capital, technology, entrepreneurial expertise, and, in many cases, products and services of world competitive quality.

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