Chernenko strengthens his hold on power

The world now knows a bit more about who wields power in the Kremlin hierarchy. Less clear is what those who have accumulated that power intend to do with it.

The Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko, has further consolidated his authority by being named the country's president.

And 53-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, the youngest member of the ruling Communist Party Politburo, has apparently secured the No. 2 position behind Mr. Chernenko - and therefore is considered front-runner to succeed the 72-year-old Chernenko as the next Soviet leader.

The two men staked their claims to power in private and had them confirmed in a closed-door meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. There were none of the caucuses, public debates, or primaries that are a feature of this American campaign season.

The public bestowal of their positions came in a pro forma manner, with a unanimous ceremonial vote of the country's nominal parliament - the Supreme Soviet. There are two immediate practical effects:

* By being named head of state - president of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet - Chernenko has all of the vestments of power worn by his two immediate predecessors, Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov. He is already the party's general secretary and chairman of the Defense Council, the secret body with ultimate warmaking power.

Becoming president confirms that Chernenko is well entrenched in the Kremlin and able to secure strong backing in the ruling Politburo. It also allows him to deal with other heads of state on an equal basis.

* Mr. Gorbachev's status as No. 2 man in the Kremlin - and heir presumptive - is solidified. He made the speech nominating Chernenko as president, seen by Kremlinologists as a key indicator of his status.

Also, he was named head of one of the parliament's two foreign affairs committees. That post has been held three times in recent years by the party's chief ideologist, considered the No. 2 spot in the Kremlin pecking order.

The posts will give Gorbachev experience in foreign policy and in interpreting and expounding upon Marxist-Leninist ideology, experience he lacks. This will undoubtedly help him lay claim to Chernenko's post when it becomes vacant, presumably at Chernenko's passing.

There is no fixed term of office for Soviet leaders and Chernenko's appointment as president suggests that he now has enough support to fend off challenges to his rule.

Moreover, Gorbachev is the youngest man in the Politburo, and the youngest in recent history to occupy the No. 2 post. Western analysts say he has little to lose by waiting.

The longer-term political impact of the moves is less certain. In fact, little is known of the two men. Like most men in the upper reaches of Soviet power, their personalities and political views are matters of conjecture.

Conventional wisdom among Western Kremlin-watchers is that Chernenko represents the ''old guard'' - lock-step conservatives resistant to change and fairly comfortable with the status quo.

Gorbachev, in these scenarios, is assigned the role of the energetic standard-bearer of a new generation, eager to innovate and impatient to revitalize the creaking Soviet economy.

The distinctions are probably overdrawn, if conversations with Soviet officials are any guide. But neither man is providing many clues.

Since coming to power two months ago, Chernenko has made fairly general statements that give passing nods to reform but also call for caution and respect for communist institutions. Gorbachev has continued to stress the need for economic reform, but has done nothing to upstage or contradict Chernenko.

Some Western analysts predict this pattern will continue as long as Chernenko is in office. They predict that Gorbachev may well spearhead attempts at economic reform, but will for the most part bide his time and wait until he can lay claim to the No. 1 position. The result, according to some analysts, could well be a sort of political ''holding pattern.''

''It's frustrating,'' says a Western diplomat, because any major change for the better in East-West relations might also be on hold.

There are other scenarios. Some analysts suggest the two men might reach some accommodation and work in tandem to bring about limited economic reform. Other analysts do not rule out a power struggle along generational lines.

Before Chernenko was elected president, one analyst said, ''In a society like this, anything can happen.'' Chernenko and Gorbachev would probably both agree.

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