Chernenko absence increases uncertainty

The restarting of negotiations between the superpowers is unlikely to be jeopardized by the uncertain state of health of Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko. That, at least, is the view of some Western diplomats here in Moscow, as speculation again grows over Mr. Chernenko's health -- and, in turn, his grip on political power in the Kremlin.

Diplomats here in Moscow suggest that renewed superpower arms talks are likely to be so long, detailed, and complicated that it will be months, and perhaps years, before a Soviet leader is forced to make difficult choices on disarmament and relations with the United States.

In the interim, the Communist Party and government apparatus can, as one diplomat puts it, ``muddle through'' on procedural questions. A collective leadership can resolve many substantive issues, even without a strong Soviet leader.

Consequently, this country can probably weather a long period without an active, visible Chernenko. But the price, according to some diplomats, will be continued economic stagnation and further delay in addressing this country's growing economic problems.

What has prompted these assessments is the abrupt and unexplained cancellation of a summit of the political leadership of the Warsaw Pact, scheduled to open this week in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Although no firm announcement had ever been made, it was widely believed that the meeting would have been Chernenko's first foreign visit since becoming Soviet leader last February.

Because of the summary cancellation, many Kremlin-watchers here are operating under the assumption that Chernenko has fallen ill.

To many here in the Soviet capital, diplomats and Soviet citizens alike, it seems a disturbing case of d'ej`a vu.

Former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov missed important state occasions and dropped from public view without explanation before his death last February. Important meetings -- including a Warsaw Pact summit -- were postponed during his lengthy illness.

Diplomats here are quick to stress that there is no indication that Chernenko is facing the kind of long, debilitating decline endured by Mr. Andropov. In fact, diplomats note that as of Dec. 27 -- the same day the summit was announced -- Chernenko was fit enough to appear before TV cameras at an awards ceremony. By contrast, Andropov was out of public view for seven months before his death was announced.

The Soviet news media are meeting the growing speculation with their usual impenetrable silence, offering a bare minimum of information. There was no mention of the cancellation on the evening television newscast.

Meanwhile, the media trumpet the fact that Cher-nenko wrote a preface to a Polish translation of some of his writings and speeches -- even though it was apparently written last August. Diplomats interpret that as an effort to keep Chernenko's name before the public.

In addition, Soviet state television refused to allow US TV correspondents to use satellite transmission facilities for reports about the summit cancellation, specifically citing the subject matter as ``unacceptable.'' (The US networks, undaunted, flew videotapes of their reports out to other European cities for satellite relays to the US.)

Soviet officials have made ambiguous statements explaining the cancellation -- then waffled when pressed for clarification.

To be sure, there is some speculation that the summit might have been postponed for reasons other than Chernenko's health. One proferred reason: uncertainty among member nations over the appropriate response to renewed negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union, agreed to at Geneva earlier this month.

Some Kremlin-watchers don't place much stock in that explanation, however, noting that Warsaw Pact nations are hardly known for taking an independent line from Moscow. Some even suggest that the suggestion of ``other reasons'' for the postponement is an example of ``disinformation'' by the Kremlin, meant to deflect attention from the state of Chernenko's health.

Obviously, Western diplomats will be keeping close watch on the Kremlin for clues as to Chernenko's health.

Doubtless they will be employing some elaborate techniques. In fact, it appears that the first firm indication that the summit was indefinitely postponed may well have come from American intelligence agencies, employing electronic eavesdropping.

They are thought to have intercepted the satellite transmission of the front page of the newspaper Soviet Russia, as it was being relayed from Moscow to a remote printing plant in the Soviet Far East. The cancellation of the summit appeared in a brief item in the lower right-hand corner of the front page. The news was apparently leaked to Western wire services. Only after the postponement was widely reported in the West did Tass, the official Soviet news agency, confirm the fact, tersely.

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