Russia under Andropov -- as seen by a former ambassador
Most observers of the Moscow scene were prepared for Soviet leader Brezhnev's death, including, obviously, the members of the Politburo and the Central Committee who moved with unaccustomed dispatch in electing his successor, Yuri Andropov.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
There were many in the United States in recent years who looked with equanimity on Brezhnev's departure, pointing to what they regarded as an inevitable generational change in leadership which would usher in an era of better Soviet behavior and, therefore, a more stable, comfortable world. And there were others who maintained that the military and the ideologues would gain the upper hand in the Politburo, and we would be in for a rough period of repeated challenges and threats to world peace and stability.
My own view is that neither prognosis was correct and that the problems the US will face under Andropov will not differ substantially from those that it confronted under Brezhnev.
An important element in predicting Soviet behavior under Andropov is an informed understanding of Brezhnev's modus operandi as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for over 18 years. Throughout his long tenure as the party boss, Brezhnev was a consensus politician, unlike his predecessor, Khrushchev, who almost from the beginning of his incumbency up until his ouster acted as a one-man show. Under Brezhnev the Politburo generally met weekly - we thought, on Thursdays, - and tended to make decisions only after thorough debate. Decisions on divisive issues generally were deferred - when possible - until establishment of a clear consensus. Brezhnev's style was to let others have their say, to consider contending points of view, and to accommodate major institutional interests - such as the military, the security police, and the heavy industry complex as well as, of course, the party which permeates and dominates all three areas.
Nevertheless, Brezhnev was the acknow-ledged first among equals. Through his large personal staff, he played a leading role in determining the Politburo's agenda, arbitrating disputes among its members, and influencing the ultimate decisions.
There undoubtedly were conflicting points of view on key issues, principally the move into Afghanistan, the handling of the Polish situation, the reaction to Mr. Reagan's administration, and - on the domestic level - the lethargic state of the Soviet economy, the disastrous crop failures in recent years, and the treatment of dissent. But decisions ultimately were on the basis of a consensus, and all members of the Politburo became part of that consensus. If they would not go along with the consensus or if, by their attitude, they were perceived as representing a threat to Brezhnev's authority, they were ousted - for example, Podgorny, now a mere deputy of the Supreme Soviet; Polyansky, who was exiled to Japan as ambassador; or Mazurov, who retired to his native republic, Byelorussia , presumably in ill health. Those that remained were part of the consensus and, therefore, personally identified with the decisions of the Politburo - and this applies to the new leader in Moscow, Andropov.
Thus I would not anticipate any basic changes in Soviet policies or behavior, at least in the near term. There, of course, will be changes in style, primarily because Andropov is younger and more vigorous than Brezhnev was in the twilight of his career - and in time we may see some changes in substance, particularly with regard to the flagging Soviet economy.