To cheer, or lament?

A friend of conservative leanings asked whether it is time to start cheering over the apparent impending conclusion of the Andropov phase in Soviet affairs. The answer is that whether Yuri Andropov returns to executive control in the Kremlin probably makes little difference either in the Soviet Union or to history, because we already know what he wanted to do and was unable to do.

And since he could not do it, the chances are that no successor, whether of the younger or older generation, will be able to do better.

The important thing about the Andropov year in power in Moscow is that he understood what needs doing if the Soviet Union is to be aroused from its economic lethargy. He tried to do it. He had probably as good a chance as anyone could have of succeeding. And he made virtually no headway against the inertia of the system.

The essential fact about the Soviet Union is that it suffers from a chronic case of economic stagnation.

Mr. Andropov launched a campaign against both corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency. He wanted to decentralize industrial management. He wanted to change priorities from quantity to quality. He made a slight dent, briefly, in a few places. But the experts who have visited the Soviet Union come back reporting that his reforms have petered out and that, by and large, the country has lapsed back into its familiar habits and problems.

It seems that Mao Tse-tung's ''great Cultural Revolution'' was applied to the wrong country. China was shaken up, and put back about 10 years in the process. But no one has tried in any similar way to shake up the Soviet system. It exists today as Stalin shaped it.

Yuri Andropov took over the top executive position in the Soviet Union a year ago. He wanted to shake it up. He, and everyone around him, knows that it needs shaking up if it is to be more efficient and competitive, and if it is ever to reach front rank among the industrialized countries of the world.

An American agronomist on a recent visit to the Soviet Union was shocked to find large quantities of grain rotting from lack of transportation to market. He commiserated with his Soviet guide. The guide replied that the villagers would be having a lively winter. They would turn the fermented grain into vodka.

One weakness Mr. Andropov wanted to attack is widespread alcoholism, which in turn has led to excessive absenteeism in Soviet industry. Had the Soviet system built roads from farm to market, instead of monumental buildings in the cities, there would be less need to buy grain from the United States and less alcoholism keeping workers from their jobs.

And if plant managers had been allowed to vary their product according to the market, instead of according to goals dreamed up in Moscow, more Soviet people might be getting the goods they want, instead of something they don't want in surplus supply. And if plant managers could reward for quality rather than quantity, Soviet industry might be able to serve better the needs of Moscow's imperial system.

Foreign policy is tied into the unsolved problems at home. Why do Poles and Hungarians, East Germans and Czechs all look longingly toward the West and do as much trade as they are allowed to do with the West, rather than with the Soviet Union?

Trade is the cement of empire.

When the central imperial power is unable to meet the economic needs of its client states, troubles follow. With a few exceptions, the Soviet empire is held together by force. Cuba and Vietnam are heavily subsidized. Angola needs Soviet support against South Africa, which it can get only from Moscow. But the European satellites are prisoners and would break out if they could.

The Soviet economic system is simply not productive enough to produce a healthy trading relationship with the client and subject states. There is restlessness throughout the Soviet empire, and the restlessness is traceable to the sluggishness of the Soviet economy.

What do Westerners want to see in the Soviet Union - the revival of economic vigor, which would sustain a more satisfied imperial system and more military power, or a continuation of economic stagnation? Mr. Andropov's year seems to show that the latter is the more likely prospect, regardless of who is nominally in charge in Moscow.

So there is really no reason for outsiders to cheer, or lament, if Mr. Andropov is followed by another.

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