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The Soviet succession

By Alan CranstonSenator Cranston of California, the Democratic Whip and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is currently writing a book on the Soviet Politburo. / July 1, 1982

A subtle shift in personnel in the top layers of the immense Soviet bureaucracy has recently precipitated a flurry of speculation among Western analysts about who might succeed Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev. This shuffle has been brought about by the death of a key Brezhnev lieutenant, the illness of two key Soviet leaders, and the unexpected promotion of one Yuri Andropov. It has offered intriguing new clues to ''Kremlinologists'' - scholars of developments in Moscow's Kremlin compound of government - as to how the coming Soviet succession may unfold.

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Few Americans noticed these changes in the upper echelons of the Soviet government. Fewer still may have grasped the significance a new generation of Soviet leadership may have for the future of East-West relations.

But from these changes the question arises: What does it matter to the average American how the Soviet succession struggle proceeds?

I studied the intricacies of Soviet leadership politics last summer as I prepared for wide-ranging talks which a Senate Foreign Relations Committee colleague, Charles ''Mac'' Mathias of Maryland, and I held with West European and Soviet leaders. And I have since undertaken extensive research into what is known about the Soviet succession struggle and the functioning of the Soviet leadership.

Kremlinologists know remarkably little about the ruling Soviet Politburo and its adjunct, the Secretariat of the Soviet Communist Party. The policy-oriented Politburo is probably the world's single most powerful decisionmaking body, while the Secretariat provides a springboard to leadership through its control over Soviet personnel decisions. In these two bodies, decisions are made in deep secrecy which have a profound effect not only on the lives of the 250 million citizens of the Soviet Union but on the lives of all Americans and other peoples of the world.

The American cabinet, less powerful as an operative body than the Politburo, works with a good deal of transparency because of our open society, our enterprising free press, and numerous contemporary memoirs. In striking contrast , the Politburo and the Party Secretariat operate in almost total darkness. Western experts must piece together the slightest signs of changes in the Soviets' ruling line-up to decipher what might be going on behind the scenes and , in turn, what we might expect from new Soviet leadership.

Kremlinologists pore over photos from official Soviet celebrations to see who may have moved up in rank. Applause given senior Soviet officials at public functions is measured as one possible indication of who is gaining favor and who is ''on the outs.'' Of course, there are other tools available to experts in our government. These include diplomatic exchanges with senior Soviet officials, our intelligence community, and interviews with emigres and defectors.

In recent weeks, Kremlinologists have been studying the changes at the top of the Soviets' ruling structure that could portend new departures for Soviet policy and that offer us some clues as to how the succession battle might unfold.