A young Soviet leader who bears watching

HE is near the top of one of the most bureaucratized, stratified (and, some would add, ossified) societies on earth . . . yet he calls for ''a style of work which rules out formalism and red tape, idle talk, inertia, and sluggishness.''

He supervises agriculture in a country that spends millions yearly importing food . . . yet calls for an end to excuses for its failure to feed itself.

''There must be fewer references to the weather and to so-called objective reasons, more order on the land, more strictness and economy in the use of machinery, fertilizer, irrigated land, fodder, financial resources. . . .''

Empty words? Or the clarion call of a reformer bent on shaking up the communist system here in the Soviet Union?

The coming months and years may well provide an answer.

Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, at 53 the youngest in the Communist Party's ruling Politburo, has emerged as the probable No. 2 figure in the Soviet hierarchy. Presumably, he is the front-runner to succeed Konstantin Chernenko as the next Soviet leader.

Even if he doesn't, his influence and power in the Soviet Union are undeniably on the rise. Mikhail Gorbachev is a man who bears watching.

The Communist Party never makes any formal announcement about the relative rank of its leaders. Therefore, Gorbachev's status must be deduced from various indicators, some as ephemeral as where he stands during public events.

That was the first indicator of his prominence in the new Soviet order after Yuri Andropov died last month. During the funeral, Gorbachev stood near the new Communist Party general secretary, Konstantin Chernenko. Soviet officials reportedly passed the word to visiting dignitaries that Gorbachev was effectively No. 2 in Kremlin rank.

Another, surer indication came during the recent election campaigns, when he made the last speech by a Politburo member (other than the Soviet prime minister , Nikolai Tikhonov, and Mr. Chernenko himself, who are always the last two by virtue of their office). That, according to the arcane science of Kremlinology, is even clearer proof of his status.

Final confirmation, however, will come when and if Gorbachev takes over the post of party ideologist - traditionally reserved for the second-in-command. Here, the signs are less certain.

Gorbachev recently signed the obituary for a musician from Azerbaijan. Since Kremlin orthodoxy holds that music should serve ideological ends, some Western analysts concluded this might have been an oblique indicator that Gorbachev now has the ideology portfolio.

But neither Gorbachev nor any other member of the Politburo except Chernenko spoke on ideology during the round of pre-election speeches. So it could be that Chernenko, himself an ideologist, may be keeping the post for himself.


Well, it is from such shards of information that Western Kremlin-watchers must divine the Kremlin pecking order. For the time being, most Western diplomats assume Gorbachev is probably No. 2.

A ranking Western diplomat says the evidence is ''pretty clear'' but adds: ''Maybe we haven't seen all there is to see.'' At any rate, he adds, Gorbachev has become a major political leader in this country.

Like other members of the Politburo, not much is known about Gorbachev's personality or private life. He was born in 1931 of peasant parents in the Stavropol region of southern Russia. He holds a law degree from Moscow State University. But most of his experience within the party appears to have been in agricultural affairs.

He joined the Communist Party at the age of 21 and became a full member of the Central Committee in 1971, at age 40. He was made a party secretary for agriculture in 1978. He became a candidate (nonvoting) member of the ruling Politburo in 1979 and a full member in 1980, surpassing men with more seniority. It is believed he was a protege of the late Mikhail Suslov, the powerful ideologist who died in 1982.

Judging from his past statements, Gorbachev's top priority seems to be jolting the lethargic Soviet economy.

He apparently supervised the economic reforms put into place under Andropov. They have been endorsed, albeit with qualifications, by Chernenko and seem likely to continue. There are indications that Gorbachev is still in charge of implementing these reforms.

They are experimental in nature and limited in scope. The thrust is to give factory managers more control over production, and more flexibility in managing the labor force. Similar reforms have been put into place in some consumer service enterprises.

In a 1983 speech marking the birthdate of Vladimir Lenin, Gorbachev said the search was under way for ''the optimal combination of centralized planning and economic independence of enterprises and local bodies. . . .''

However, he made it clear that central economic planning - which many Western economists see as the bane of the Soviet system - would continue, since Gorbachev argues that ''centralism (is) the key principle in the organization of socialism's economy.''

Therefore, a radical economic restructuring seems unlikely under Gorbachev. Instead, his emphasis - as was Andropov's - seems to be on increasing discipline in the work force.

''Unconscientious work,'' he said in the same speech, comes back ''in the shape of poor-quality goods and services. It is the duty of everyone to strengthen discipline. This concerns all - every worker, every leader of any rank, without exception.''

Under Andropov, that stress on discipline resulted in hundreds of officials in the Communist Party and many industries losing their office. The effort seems to have gained wide support among the Soviet populace, if random on-the-street interviews are any indicator. And it seems to have produced results: During Andropov's only full year in office, many of the country's economic indicators showed modest improvement.

It remains to be seen whether the same course will be followed by Chernenko. However, in his early speeches he has stressed many of the same themes as Andropov: discipline, increased labor productivity, and better use of technology.

If Gorbachev continues to oversee economic matters for the Politburo, the same stress is likely in the future.

Gorbachev's views on foreign affairs appear to be quite orthodox: a commitment to a strong Soviet military coupled with denunciations of imperialism and militarism, which in the Kremlin lexicon are invariably linked to capitalism.

Still, Western analysts surmise that Gorbachev's view of the West is somewhat less hard-line than some other Politburo members such as Grigory Romanov, a supposed rival to Gorbachev for the post of general secretary.

Gorbachev is one of the relatively few senior Soviet officials to have visited a NATO country. The purpose of his 1983 trip to Canada was to promote agricultural trade, but his speech before a parliamentary committee was so polished that an MP ventured that Gorbachev would be a convincing campaigner - if this country had competitive elections.

In fact, Gorbachev's most recent speech was a ''campaign'' speech, although he - like every other candidate - was unopposed. According to Tass, the official Soviet news agency, Gorbachev expressed the hope that ''an aspiration for reaching accords will emerge'' in the West. The Soviet Union, he said, is ''ready to use any real chance for fair negotiations.''

Western analysts scoured that speech for clues to Gorbachev's thinking. They have good reason to do so. Inevitably, there will be a generational change in the Kremlin hierarchy in coming years. When it comes, Mikhail Gorbachev seems well-positioned to take advantage of it.

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