It is a little like watching a fuse burn for an entire year - and not knowing whether the result will be fireworks or fizzle. That, in sum, is the state of affairs in the Soviet Union one year after Yuri Andropov took charge in the Kremlin.
To Westerners, who gauge leadership by bold strokes and quick results, Mr. Andropov has been something of a disappointment. His early moves to crack down on corruption and jolt the sluggish Soviet economy have, to them, been something of a dud.
But to Soviet observers, who see the role of government through far different eyes, Mr. Andropov is slowly consolidating power. The real changes, they expect, will come in another two to three years - when Andropov has consolidated his power in the Kremlin.
Perhaps the most burning question, however, is whether Andropov's health will permit him to carry through with any plans he might have. Andropov has not been seen by foreigners for more than two months now, and missed out on two important ceremonies marking the 66th anniversary of the Russian Revolution - appearances which are virtually obligatory for a Soviet leader.
Some Western experts, highly skeptical of official explanations that he has a cold, are already branding Andropov as a transitional leader. They suggest that he will bridge the gap between a sluggish Leonid Brezhnev and a dynamic, energetic leader who is as yet unknown.
Yet there is nothing to suggest that Andropov would be content with such a role. On the contrary, there are indications that he is laying the groundwork for some changes in the management of the Soviet system - though not the system itself.
One Soviet academic, an expert in Kremlin politics, stresses that a new Soviet leader inherits a bureaucracy that he had virtually no part in choosing. So far, this observer notes, Andropov has managed to change only ''5 to 6 percent'' of the ''administrative cadres'' that actually run the Soviet system. A change of about half is necessary, he says, before there is any real change in the way government functions.
Elections within the Communist Party over the next six months, he says, will give some indication of whether Andropov can remake the bureaucracy in his own image. But the process will take another ''two to three years,'' he adds.
It therefore remains to be seen whether Andropov will be able to make much of a difference in the Soviet Union. Still, there are some broad indicators of what Yuri Andropov might - and might not - attempt:
* Foreign policy. The Kremlin's approach to the West will probably remain essentially unchanged. It has so far been notably unsuccessful in preventing the deployment of new cruise and Pershing II missiles in Western Europe. It has, however, made the United States and its allies pay a heavy political price for the deployment by stoking European fears that the continent is being mapped out as a battlefield for a limited nuclear war.
The Soviets, however, are trying to cast off one of the legacies of the Brezhnev era: frosty relations with China. The Kremlin is making a determined effort to improve relations, although it is too early to determine whether it will find lasting success.
* Economic discipline. An early effort to crack down on corruption and sloth in the Soviet economy appears to have tapered off. Early tentative steps have been taken to introduce a few changes in management style in some Soviet factories. Western experts say, however, these are far short of what's needed to spark any substantial economic growth. More important, many Western analysts say, there is no evidence that Andropov has the political wherewithal to stop the Soviet military from draining off the lion's share of investment resources from the consumer sector.
* Internal security. The prestige of the KGB (Committee for State Security), which Andropov formerly headed, seems on the rise. The KGB has been given favorable press coverage in recent months - a departure from the past, when the agency was rarely mentioned. Some of its top leadership have recently been promoted and been given increasingly important roles in rooting out corruption.
Still, there is also evidence that the KGB is resorting to more of the familiar tactics of the past - cracking down on dissent and encouraging citizens to spy on one another.