Will the real Soviet budget please stand up?

Last August, in a prospectus for its first foreign bond issue, the Russian government claimed to be running a budget surplus, putting the figure at 3 billion rubles or $1.8 billion.Only two months later, the Kremlin admitted it actually was running a deficit - something that outside observers had suspected for years but were unable to prove - and claimed the red ink amounted to 35 billion rubles, about $58 billion at current exchange rates.

But now Soviet economist Leonid I. Abalkin, director of the National Institute of the Economy, says the deficit is nearly three times bigger than the Kremlin first admitted. That would put the Soviet deficit at about $165 billion, or 11 percent of Russia's gross national product. By comparison, the U.S. federal deficit amounts to about 4 percent of GNP.

What conclusions should be drawn from this unaccustomed exercise in Soviet candor, with its resulting contradictions and confusion?

For one thing, the rest of the world ought to go slow on approving Russia's applications to join the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff. These organizations require "transparent" reporting of financial conditions in which no numbers are hidden. At this point, it isn't clear if Russia really knows how bad off it is, let alone how far Moscow is willing to go in admitting its difficulties.

For another, individual nations also should be cautious about making loans to Russia as long as there are such serious questions about the Soviets' willingness as well as their ability to pay them off.

Why question Russia's willingness on this score? Because Soviet prices remain under government control, enabling the Kremlin to disguise or at least delay an inflationary spiral. And because Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has yet to follow through on a price reform that would reduce red ink by eliminating subsidies on many commodities. Yet this reform is supposed to be a key part of Gorbachev's "perestroika" campaigns to restructure the Soviet economy.

By all means, the Soviets should be encouraged to keep publishing previously secret economic statistics. But it would pay to view those figures with some skepticism. After all, there's no reason to think the Soviet statisticians are more competent and reliable than are the economic planners who gave Russia its chronic shortages of crops and consumer products.