Vienna — The Soviets may be backing away from any showdown over the latest rift threatening the international communist movement. They appear especially cautious about precipitating an all-out clash with the Italian Communist Party, the biggest and most powerful in the West.
Several substantial developments point to such a decision:
One is that the Soviet leadership is increasingly confident that it has "got away" with its invasion of Afghanistan. It now is considerably less worried about the international implications than it was initially.
It has, in fact, been widely reported from Moscow that the Russians have recovered from that first surprise over the force of Western reactions and the shock of difficulties they encountered in Afghanistan itself.
East European sources initially dismayed by the Soviet action are also saying , with evident relief, that the worst danger is past and that the Russians now "have the situation in hand."
The Soviets can therefore afford to take a quieter line with parties opposed to their move, the same sources add.
A second development is the way in which the Soviet-sponsored conference of East and West European communists scheduled to be held in Paris soon is being played down.
The forthright refusal of the Yugoslavas and of the Italian and Spanish parties to participate has sparked prospects of a deeper conflict than the divisions of the early 1970s. Having these two West European Communist parties back away from the conference is particularly embarrassing to Soviet efforts to mobilize the movement as a whole.
These parties said it would be pointless and counterproductive to confer on peace and disarmament without discussing Afghanistan. Now the Russians themselves seem to be weighing more carefully the possibility that the conference might prove counterproductive.
With the smaller Western parties showing no enthusiasm and talking of sending only "observers" if they attend the conference at all it could turn out to be a fiasco.
The ostensible sponsors are the French and Polish parties. (The French party is the only West European party that sided with the Russians over Afghanistan.)
Both have said very little about it. Instead of polemics, they are presenting the conference as a low-key affair designed only to get a bland consensus of views about disarmament.
A third restraint on the Russians -- and one felt by some of their East European allies -- is that past experience has demonstrated the cost of futility of any attempt to "excommunicate" a party in conflict with Moscow.
The Kremlin wanted to go that route with China in the early 1970's. But that plan met with total resistance not only from the Yugoslavs but also from the Italian and Spanish parties and many of the small West Europeans. In addition, behind the scenes at least two of the usually loyal East European parties were reluctant to back the plan.
"China was far away from Europe. But 'excommunication' in the way Stalin tried with the Yugoslavs in 1948 was still out of the question," said one such Eastern source.
"The consequences of any such move today with a party like the Italian could have still more far-reaching consequences -- and not just among European parties."
China's expulsion was blocked. And when the Russians finally got their conference of European parties in 1976, they had no choice but to accept a Yugoslav-Eurocommunist- drafted declaration confirming the independence and equality of all parties and communist states.
China is still focal point of Soviet Concern for its lost authority in the communist world as a whole.
But the Kremlin's position is not yet completely clear. A Pravda article April 7 attacked Peking for taking "a road without a future." But it also urged China to resume the talks on improving relations, which the Chinese had refused to do because of Afghanistan.
The Italian party's decision to send a delegation of Peking later this month to reopen relations with the Chinese after a 20-year break evoked no applause in Moscow.
But it was not attacked, and the Soviet leadership may, indeed, view the event as not unfavorable to their own interests.
The Italian Communists condemned the move into Afghanistan. But they also criticized retaliation and other aspects of the Western position in the region.
Moreover, much as they criticize the Soviets, they are not by any means pro-Peking. In fact, they recently have publicly stated disagreement with the Chinese on "almost all" matters of foreign policy.