Moscow — The first top-level reshuffle under new Soviet leader Yuri Andropov gives a traditionally important policy job to a man once seen as a prime contender for the No. 1 post.
Yet the shift involving Konstantin Chernenko, a close protege of the late Leonid Brezhnev, also removes him from a post that has more direct input into day-to-day decisionmaking.
And Soviet officials suggest Mr. Chernenko's new portfolio - for ideology and foreign affairs, within the party's 9-member Secretariat - is one on which Mr. Andropov, too, is likely to exert considerable influence.
The sources indicate the shift followed lengthy consideration within the leadership. They portray it as leaving Mr. Andropov clearly in control, but with Mr. Chernenko retaining a post of genuine influence.
The move, disclosed by senior Soviet officials but not announced at time of writing, seems in keeping with the new party chief's generally cautious style of leadership during his first month in office.
Officials say Mr. Andropov is meanwhile readying a policy address for delivery later in December during celebration of the 60th anniversary of Soviet statehood.
So far he has avoided major departures from Brezhnev-era policy at home and abroad. He has concentrated mainly on conveying a somewhat tougher, more direct tone on problems of inertia, inefficiency, indiscipline, and corruption that have complicated past domestic policy initiatives.
Yet the focus so far has been on the mechanics of transition. The hallmark has been caution and the avoidance of a wholesale shakeup in the power structure deeded by Mr. Brezhnev.
In at least one ministerial change - also not yet announced - officials say Mr. Andropov has activated plans made under Mr. Brezhnev to promote relatively younger figures in the hierarchy. Specifically, the sources say, China-expert Mikhail Kapitsa and US-affairs specialist Viktor Komplektov have been named deputy foreign ministers.
Mr. Andropov has also replaced Brezhnev-era figures in two priority party posts - the head of the communist youth wing, and the party propaganda chief. The party Secretariat's top economic overseer, who retired before Mr. Brezhnev's passing, was also replaced.
In seeming support of Mr. Andropov's ''discipline'' message, little time was wasted in dismissing the head of the Soviet Railway Ministry, long the target of official criticism.
And the new party leader has signaled a particular area of concern on the economic front - the nation's chaotic transportation system. Senior sources say Geidar Aliyev, named deputy Soviet prime minister shortly after Mr. Brezhnev's passing, will concentrate on supervising an overhaul of transport. ''He is tough , a taskmaster -which is what is needed,'' an associate comments.
But officials maintain that Mr. Andropov sees neither need nor purpose in hasty hirings and firings, nor in publicly collecting tokens of his own power.
The sources say the new party chief, who confounded some Kremlinologists at a November parliamentary session by not assuming Mr. Brezhnev's additional post of state president, would not do so at the legislature's meeting later this month either.
But senior officials say Mr. Andropov has, as party leader, assumed what they term the ''automatic'' additional posts of armed forces commander in chief and head of the national defense council.
Mr. Chernenko, meanwhile, is said formally to have assumed the ideology and foreign affairs post within the Secretariat - a body that, in addition to its key role in day-to-day implementation of policy, also coordinates outside reports and can ''frame'' policy decisions for the ruling Politburo.
Both Mr. Andropov and Mr. Chernenko, along with agricultural specialist Mikhail Gorbachev, are full members of both senior party bodies.
Senior officials say that in assuming the new Secretariat post, Mr. Chernenko has been moved from head of the body's general department - coordinator of all outside reports and studies for the party leadership, and an important source of Mr. Chernenko's widening influence during the final years of the Brezhnev era.
While suggesting an entirely new figure could ultimately be named to that post, senior Soviet officials say that at least for the time being it has been given to 73-year-old Mikhail Bogolyubov, a career party functionary who has occupied a senior post in the general department since 1965.
Some foreign diplomats here maintain the cautious Andropov approach so far is a sign he could yet face obstacles in consolidating his power.
Senior Soviet officials, while acknowledging that it could be some time before a definitive post-Brezhnev team is fully in place, maintain Mr. Andropov is indisputably in control and that the measured pace of early changes owes more to his character and style of leadership than to serious practical constraints.