Russia under Andropov -- as seen by a former ambassador

By , Malcolm Toon has served as US ambassador in Czechoslovakia, Israel, Yugoslavia, and most recently the USSR.

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.

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.

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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.

A key harbinger of this would be new appointments to the Politburo. For example, elevation of candidate members such as Dolgikh, who is principally concerned with the industrial side of the economy to full membership, coupled with a strengthening of the Council of Ministers by the retirement of aging, unimaginative party stalwarts like Tikhonov and Arkhipov, could reflect a decision by Andropov to opt for innovative action in reversing the Soviet economic decline. And some measure of reform might be palatable to the old guard who continue to dominate the Politburo and the Central Committee if carried out under the watchful eye of Andropov, who could, in the view of the conservatives, be relied upon to use the same ruthlessness he applied to his KGB responsibilities in making sure reforms would not seriously damage the role of the party and thus would not get out of hand.

How should the United States react to the change of the helm in Moscow? In a word, maturely, and without undue apprehension or exaggerated optimism; basically, it should adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

We should not be taken in by the disinformation coming out of Moscow about Andropov - that he really is a nice fellow, dresses well, is cultured, speaks English (incidentally, in my several brief encounters with Andropov I never heard him say a word of English), likes abstract art, and is moderate and even liberal in his outlook. He may be some of these things but certainly not the latter; it would be the height of self-deception to regard as a liberal or a moderate a man who played an important role in the brutal suppression of the Hungarian rebellion in 1956, who crushed dissent in the Soviet Union and dealt ruthlessly with its leading practitioners.

Nor should we go to the other extreme, as some purists would recommend, by refusing to deal with a former chief of the KGB out of reluctance to stain our escutcheon - which, in any case, is not all that unsullied.

Secondly, we should be cautious about putting forward initiatives in order to test the new regime - as has been suggested by a former colleague of mine in the Carter administration, particularly with regard to Poland and Afghanistan. We should, rather, through prudent contingency planning, gear ourselves to react positively to any indication that the Soviet Union under Andropov is prepared to take a more constructive attitude than it has traditionally done on the basic relationship between our two countries, on arms control negotiations, and even on regional political problems such as Afghanistan, Kampuchea, or the Middle East.

I am glad to note that this is what the US secretary of state apparently has in mind and the President as well, if I read correctly the meaning behind the rather glib, slick language that characterized Mr. Reagan's last press conference as well as so many previous ones. The intention is there; and the job can be done provided the career foreign service is not further decimated and demoralized by an extension of this administration's penchant for installing amateurs in key foreign policy positions and by listening to them rather than to the seasoned professionals.

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