Andropov, consolidating his power, braces for new test of momentum

An imminent session of the Soviet Communist Central Committee is shaping up as a test of momentum for new party chief Yuri Andropov. The meeting, expected this week, is the first one fully organized under Mr. Andropov, who succeeded the late Leonid Brezhnev some seven months ago.

In the most everyday terms, a young ice-cream salesgirl interviewed in a downtown Moscow grocery touches on the momentum issue:

Early in Mr. Andropov's tenure, a highly publicized ''discipline campaign'' had largely emptied this and other city food stores of habitual daytime shoppers who should have been at work.

''There still seem, overall, fewer people here during work hours,'' says the young woman. ''But there aren't so few as at the start of the year. . . . Then, of course, there were far fewer people.''

And while it remains too early to draw definitive conclusions from official statistics, national figures for ''labor productivity'' do suggest that, after impressively sizable initial effect, the drive for economic discipline may be confronting the stubborn Soviet equivalent of the law of diminishing returns.

On potentially more profound issues - like how, generally, to make the economy more efficient and who will get top party posts vacated over the past year or so - Mr. Andropov's capacity to demonstrate momentum also matters.

So far - some foreign punditry aside - Mr. Andropov does seem to have been consolidating power pretty much as intended.

Senior officials have said privately from the start that his first priorities would be to convey a fresh sense of energy, discipline, and efficiency nationwide, and begin a prudently measured series of personnel changes in party, government, and economy; while quietly weighing the merits of more profound possible policy shifts in the longer run.

These officials have portrayed Mr. Andropov as a man intent on real results, but too aware of the intricacies of Soviet politics to embark on ''rash'' overhauls.

But the current importance of ''momentum'' - as suggested with varying degrees of directness by remarks from Soviets high and low, and from foreign Kremlin-watchers - lies in defusing the possibility that Mr. Andropov's compatriots may interpret caution as lack of resolve.

This is a nation where change comes slowly, and even when it comes, it faces the pressure of erosion. It is also a nation where ''discipline'' and ''efficiency'' campaigns have come and gone without too much lasting effect in recent years.

A blond woman student from Moscow's prestigious Institute of Finance offers a sidewalk assessment of Mr. Andropov's early months in power:

''Discipline is the main idea. You can see changes. People were posted at the doors of our institute taking the names of people who arrived late or didn't show up at all. . . . I even have friends who lost scholarship payments as a result.

''But this - as everything - has eased with the end of the school year approaching. . . . Personally, I think the discipline moves probably won't last in present form,'' she goes on, despite her apparent support for such a crackdown. ''I suspect things will get back to normal.''

A prominent official is reliably said to have expressed some doubts to an associate recently about the staying power of the new bid for more discipline and economic efficiency. And various senior sources, in remarks to the Monitor, have hinted they think Mr. Andropov, in effect, should strike with any substantive policy changes while the transition iron is still hot.

Asked when a long-planned special Central Committee session on ''economic management'' might convene, a ranking official said in mid-May it was not imminent. ''Economic policy changes have to be very thoroughly worked through,'' he said. ''We need a bit of time,'' at least until this fall.

But then he added: ''Not too much time, of course.''

Another source, while denying any serious policy clashes under Mr. Andropov so far, acknowledges high-level ''debate'' on overall ideological issues in anticipation of possible moves toward long-term change.

There has been one regular session of the Central Committee, a body several hundred strong that acts largely as gearbox for decisions initiated above, under Mr. Andropov. It came only days after his elevation as party chief and was largely mapped out earlier. The present plenum, a Soviet source says, ''is the first fully held under Andropov.''

Advance hints about the session are that one focus will be ''ideology'' - that it will be in keeping with ''a realistic approach not prone to rash upheavals'' - and that its most important activity may be a further personnel shuffle at the top.

The meeting will be followed by a routine session of the rubber-stamp parliament. This time, officials say, it is ''logical'' to assume the announcement of a new state president.

Some overseas pundits are positing their own standards for an Andropov ''success'' at the twin meetings. It is assumed, for example, that a truly strong Andropov will follow the Brezhnev pattern in assuming the largely ceremonial state presidency in addition to his party role.

He may do so. But senior sources have suggested all along that he feels the presidency's frillish duties might hinder more than help his work on substantive policies. This would seem especially relevant in light of remarks by Scandinavian sources here that Andropov looked frail and tired during a recent visit here by the President of Finland.

So for Andropov to take on the Soviet presidency could be more a sign of insecurity - or inability to push through an acceptable substitute name - than of strength.

Meanwhile, personnel changes that will have more impact on policymaking may be announced by the Central Committee. Soviet officials, while giving no detailed preview, hint there will be at least some shift in the party's ruling Politburo and in the Central Committee's inner Secretariat - following a generally gentle, gradual, but cumulatively sizable shift of second-echelon party and government figures in past months.

A Pravda article that cited some ranking officials for corruption - including two in quite senior positions - has diplomats and unofficial Soviet analysts wondering whether the Central Committee might formally expel them, or colleagues , from that group.

An influential area on which Politburo and Secretariat changes might touch - an area where momentum would seem of immediate relevance - is of overall party personnel decisions and party discipline.

The recent passing of Arvid Pelshe, the oldest Politburo member, leaves open his post as head of the party Control Committee. Of late this body has seemed to shy away from a forceful reading of its disciplinary powers. Yet this could change under Andropov.

One major change has already occurred: the naming in April of a new head of the department for party ''organizational work.'' That group, attached to the Central Committee's Secretariat, can wield considerable influence in personnel matters.

The new head, Yegor Ligachev, was long the regional party chief in the Russian city of Tomsk. He may be Andropov's personal choice. Senior officials say Mr. Ligachev worked on ideological issues within the Secretariat's apparatus in the early '60s, and this would have brought him into contact with Andropov.

Past pattern suggests Mr. Ligachev, as chief of the party organization department, may get his own seat on the Central Committee Secretariat.

Similarly, any new head of the party Control Committee would likely be awarded at least candidate, or nonvoting, status on the Politburo, if he doesn't already have it.

Finally, the naming of a new state president - if it is someone other than Andropov - could mean some related shift in the Politburo or other top posts.

A senior source has denied pre-plenum rumors that Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov will become president and be replaced as defense chief - or that Konstantin Chernenko, will ''retire'' at the Central Committee meeting because of a recent illness.

But giving the presidency to any top figure would imply some further, collateral shuffle.

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