Brezhnev still going strong after 16 years in power

Let Jimmy Carter and Helmut Schmidt run for re-election. Their chief rival on the world stage, Leonid Brezhnev, sits on the dais in a huge Kremlin chamber, animatedly writing notes and chatting with colleagues, immune from primaries and elections, defying all Western predictions of imminent retirement. He remains front and center in the ruling 14-man party Politburo.

This burly, broad-shouldered, septuagenarian son of a steelworker seems to be as dominant in the Politburo today as at any time during the last 16 years. Recently his health has shown a marked improvement.

He lets slip no clue as to his successor or when he himself might step down.

Western leaders have come and gone: Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Ludwig Erhard, Kurt Georg Kiesinger, Willy Brandt. . . . but the former metalworker from the banks of the Dnieper River in the Ukraine has outlasted them all.

Recent months have seen speculation here and in Western capitals that Mr. Brezhnev is ill, tired, old, unable to work long hours, and in political trouble because of the ailing economy at home and the crumbling of detente.

Yet in the teeth of such speculation, Mr. Brezhnev has in recent days:

* Made the keynote speech at the semiannual meeting of the Communist Party's 271-man Central Committee.

* Made the long-awaited announcement that the 26th congress of the party (in theory its highest organ) will start on Feb. 23, 1981.

* Announced that he will make the main address on domestic and foreign issues , and Premier Alexei Kosygin will outline how the party intends to solve economic problems for the 1981-1986 five-year plan.

* Made sure that the Central Committee has endorsed the concept of detente to which he publicly adheres despite the crisis over Afghanistan.

* Appeared on the dais at the June 24 session of the Supreme Soviet (the nominal legislature) looking in "top form," as one Eastern European source put it later.

Western Kremlin-watchers take it for granted here that by announcing he will make the major speech at the February congress, mr. Brezhnev is signaling his intention to stay at the helm for a long time yet.

"I just can't imagine he intends to launch the next five-year plan and the step down," commented one Western ambassador after the Supreme Soviet session June 24.

Most Kremlin-watchers assume that the man who sat in the fourth position in the five-man front seat of the Politburo June 24, Andrei Kirilenko, would become party leader if Mr. Brezhnev left the scene any time soon.

Because Mr. Kirilenko is thought to be a Brezhnev associate of many years and because he would lead a Politburo dominated by other Brezhnev allies, the real interest would then center on who might emerge to take over after a year or so of infighting backstage.

Meanwhile the Central Committee resolution published June 24 bears the Brezhnev stamp, from its hard line on Afghanistan to its desire for more detente and more party exhortation for workers -- especially in energy, transportation, and importing tecnology.

The youngest man on the dais June 24 was Mikhail Gorbachev, 49. Appointed a non-voting Politburo member in November 1979, he is in charge of agriculture. Typical of younger, better-educated party activists, he has waited in party ranks through a decade and a half of immobility under Mr. Brezhnev.

Studied through binoculars from way back in the chamber June 24, the Politburo collectively exhibited advanced age, a dark and sombre appearance (except for Mr. Kirilenko's startlingly fawn-colored summer suit).

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