Mikhail Gorbachev has ended a period of benign neglect in the Soviet Union and is pursuing a hard line on issues affecting his country and the world, according to Western Sovietologists. Mr. Gorbachev, Soviet leader for more than six months, has shown no signs of liberalizing Soviet policies or society. His policies are the same as those of his predecessors, especially the late Yuri Andropov, except that they are being ``pursued more skillfully, more competently, and more vigorously,'' says Dimitri Simes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Kremlin watchers say Moscow's hard line can be seen in such areas as the greater status Gorbachev has given to the secret police (the KGB), the intensification of the war in Afghanistan, the Soviet leader's praise for the Stalinist economic system -- and even in the recent tit-for-tat expulsion of Britons and Soviets on espionage charges.
These experts see Soviet flexibility in only one key area: the November summit in Geneva between Gorbachev and President Reagan. There are signs that Gorbachev will submit ``an extremely forthcoming arms control position'' at the summit, says Jerry Hough of the Brookings Institution.
On Friday, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze said the Soviet Union would cut its offensive nuclear arsenals in half if President Reagan would limit research on space-based weapons to the laboratory. But Mr. Reagan has repeatedly said that his ``star wars'' program is not negotiable.
Still, the Soviet desire for an arms control agreement has not led to improved relations with the United States. In fact, the Kremlin has stepped up its broadsides against the US. And Mr. Hough argues in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that Gorbachev has promoted people who are known for being skeptical about dealing with the US but who favor a major opening toward Europe and Japan. (Public debate is being carried out in the Soviet press over whether or not Moscow should tighten the reins on Easter n Europe.)
Thus, Sovietologists say, a key reason the Soviets are seeking an arms control agreement is not to renew superpower d'etente, but to allow Gorbachev to give more attention to the economy, his No. 1 priority.
Kremlin watchers identify Gorbachev as a prot'eg'e of Mr. Andropov, the former Soviet leader and long-time KGB chief. He is seen as a man who has promoted Andropov men and followed Andropov policy, such as a campaign for tighter discipline and crusades against corruption and drunkenness. And like Andropov, Gorbachev is replacing older and lackluster party and government figures with younger and energetic people who he can work with and who will be loyal to him.
The economy presents Gorbachev with complex problems. He must decide whether to move the country toward a more decentralized system of economic planning and, if so, how far the changes should go and how fast they should be implemented. In pursuing decentralization, Gorbachev would have to overcome the bureaucratic inertia and fear such a shift is likely to spark.
Although Gorbachev has called for ``revolutionary changes'' in the Soviet economy, thus far he has only tightened up the existing system and put greater stress on central planning.
``I don't know where some circles in the West have picked up the notion that he's a liberalizer or decentralizer. I think there's no evidence of that,'' says Vladimir Treml, an economist at Duke University.
Indeed, on May 8 Gorbachev praised the ``superiority'' of the late Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's planned economy, saying that it had ``proved its viability.'' Yegor Ligachev, believed to be the No. 2 man in the Kremlin, has said that there will be no ``shift toward the market economy or private enterprise.''
In the field of human rights, Josh Rubenstein of Amnesty International says that performance has neither improved nor sharply deteriorated.
But whether the present hard line on the economy, human rights, and other issues will continue is not clear.
``We should not say that this is going to be the rule of his tenure,'' Mr. Simes says. Despite recent changes in the Soviet leadership, Gorbachev is still in the early stage of consolidating his power, and -- once more firmly in control -- he may modify or abandon his present policies, Simes says.
A key area in which the West will look for change is the war in Afghanistan. So far under Gorbachev there has been ``a dramatic intensification'' of military effort in Afghanistan, according to Alex Alexiev of the Rand Corporation, but he adds that the war remains a stalemate.
There have been two major Soviet offensives this year along the Pakistan border, the traditional supply route for the mujahideen fighting the Soviets. The first was in Kunar in late May and June. The most recent offensive began in Paktia in mid-August. The latter appears to be the largest offensive of the war. Mr. Alexiev estimates that 20,000 soldiers are fighting there. ``These are major operations with hundreds of tanks and helicopters involved,'' he says.
So many Soviet soldiers have been killed since the December 1979 invasion that, under Gorbachev, the Soviet news media -- especially the military publications -- have considerably increased their coverage on Afghanistan. Such reports stress the heroism and self-sacrifice of the Soviet forces, Alexiev notes.
In fact, this emphasis on the ``positive hero'' is part of a broader trend: the re-Stalinization of literature, in which social themes are stressed over private themes.
Literature, all of which is government censored, has taken a cue from Gorbachev and is urging readers to work hard and avoid drunkenness, according to Maurice Friedberg, professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. More daring literary efforts of recent years have disappeared, he says. ``A tightening of the screws will continue for quite some time, and that is normally called Stalinism in the West,'' he adds.
In part this firmness is occasioned by the higher profile of the KGB under Gorbachev. Three members of the nation's ruling Politburo have spent part of their careers with the police.
KGB chief Viktor Chebrikov, an 18-year KGB veteran, was elevated to full (voting) Politburo membership a month after Gorbachev came to power. Eduard Shev- ardnadze, who spent seven years as head of the MVD (police) in his native republic of Georgia, was made foreign minister in July and given full Politburo membership. And Geidar Aliyev, a full member of the Poliburo since 1982, was a KGB officer for 28 years and is one of the top five or six men in the Soviet Union, according to Alexander Rahr, a researcher at Radio Liberty in Munich. Mr. Aliyev is ``a fireman,'' Mr. Rahr says, dispatched to solve problems wherever they occur.
The number of men on the Poliburo with police connections is the highest in Soviet history, Simes says.
The unprecedented favor enjoyed by the KGB bears out the assessment of former Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in his nomination of Gorbachev for general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
``Comrades, this man has a nice smile,'' said Mr. Gromyko. ``But he's got iron teeth.''