Moscow makes a choice

The important thing about the news from Moscow is that the leadership avoided the chance to pick a younger man with a prospect of being in power long enough to change the domestic economic system.

They could have picked any one of four younger members of the Politburo to succeed Yuri Andropov. Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Vitali Vorotnikov are in their 50s. Geidar Aliev and Grigory V. Romanov are both 61.

Had the choice fallen on any one of these, then that person would have had the prospect of being in office long enough to carry out the reforms of the domestic system which Mr. Andropov never had the time to achieve.

Instead, they chose Konstantin U. Chernenko, who is 72 and was also the protege and chosen successor of Leonid Brezhnev who for so long kept the lid on change in the Soviet system.

The preference for the older man has little if anything to do with foreign policy. The issue of East-West relations was probably the last thing in the minds of the membership when it opted for the older rather than take a chance on a younger man who might make a big difference in internal economic policy.

The essential fact about the Soviet Union today is that the government is in the hands of an established and aging oligarchy made up of bureaucrats and time servers who are wedded to the existing, highly centralized, corrupt, and inefficient system.

The well-being of the individual bureaucrat is intimately tied into centralized economics. Without the system the bureaucrats would be out of jobs and out of the privileges that make the difference in Moscow between luxurious living and subsistence living.

Everyone in government in the Soviet Union knows that the system is corrupt and inefficient and that the economy is in a sad condition of stagnation. They know, and admit freely to foreign visitors, that the long-term welfare of the state calls for a thorough shake-up both of people and of methods. Some decentralization of the economy and some form of revival of the incentive system are imperative.

But it is one thing to know that reform is needed and another for the beneficiaries of the inefficent system to move eagerly on with reform. ''Not in my time'' is the inevitable attitude of the bureaucrat who enjoys a limousine, a dacha in the country, and access to the luxury commissaries.

Yuri Andropov tried to reform the system, which is probably why he had difficulty establishing himself as top man quickly and also why his attempted reforms were largely blocked among the bureaucrats. He did not have time in office to break the grip of the old-time servers.

Given another 10 years in office, Mr. Andropov would probably have achieved the kind of revitalization in the Soviet system which Deng Xiaoping has achieved in China and which the recent recession did to the United States - shaking out old and inefficient industries and practices and clearing the way for a new beginning.

But all that Mr. Andropov actually achieved in his brief 15 months in office was to frighten the time servers.

When the leadership had a chance to make another choice, it rejected the younger men Mr. Andropov had brought in to the Politburo and went back to a Brezhnev man for reassurance that change, if it must be, will be as slow as possible and interfere as little as possible with the lives and comforts of the existing oligarchies.

The choice in Moscow touches the US and the rest of the Western and outside world in one way. It means that the Soviet Union will lag farther behind the West, Japan, and China in the new computer-dominated era that the others have entered or are entering. It means that a centralized control system will continue to stifle innovation. It means that older factories and obsolete industries will be kept going longer in the Soviet Union while the other industrialized countries get on with building the new factories.

This touches on foreign policy and East-West relations in one indirect way. It means that in competition for the goodwill of third-world countries the Soviets will continue to suffer the disadvantage that has long limited their recruiting. They are poor in modern consumer goods. They have little to offer their clients - but weapons.

So the story in Moscow is of a chance to modernize - which was rejected.

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