He still speaks with authority and commands respect, but his influence seems nevertheless on the wane. Andrei Gromyko, Soviet foreign minister for 25 years and now this country's President, has been assigned a largely symbolic role in the reshaping of Soviet politics under Mikhail Gorbachev, Western analysts say.
This view was underscored during the 27th Communist Party Congress, which ends here today.
Mr. Gromyko met foreign dignitaries, made the requisite speech, and handed out medals during the congress. But, diplomats say, he does not appear to be among the inner circle of Mr. Gorbachev's political advisers and allies.
Speculation here is centering on whether the man who replaced Gromyko last July -- Eduard Shevardnadze -- will himself be replaced.
Gromyko ``still has a significant role, even a major role'' in the Soviet power structure, says one Western diplomat. But before the congress he mainly saw ``second order'' visitors, the diplomat adds, and it's unclear just how much influence -- if any -- Gromyko has in shaping Soviet foreign or domestic policy.
During the congress, while Gorbachev met with the leaders of all of Moscow's major allied states, Gromyko has played host to such lesser luminaries as Cambodian leader Heng Samrin, Iraqi Communist Party head Aziz Muhammad, and Argentine Communist Party chieftain Athos Fava.
But Gromyko appears resilient rather than resigned.
``He certainly seems to be making the best of it,'' says one Western diplomat.
Western analysts believe that Gromyko was removed as Soviet foreign minister so that, as one puts it, Gorbachev could take ``an energetic, activist role in foreign policy formulation.''
Mr. Shevardnadze, though he has only been in office some eight months, has come to be known as a loyal executor of foreign policy, rather than an architect. There are persistent rumors that he is about to be moved to party headquarters, to become a secretary overseeing the Communist Party Central Committee's International Department. That, in theory, would give the party an even greater role in overseeing foreign policy.
And it would even further dilute the influence of the Soviet Foreign Ministry, an institution whose influence and prestige steadily increased during Gromyko's years there.
If Gromyko has any thoughts about these matters, however, he keeps them to himself. His public persona remains as enigmatic as before, betraying no emotion and revealing no inner musings.
It has remained that way throughout the congress, where Gromyko has become a familiar presence, sitting prominently on the dais and impassively surveying the proceedings.
However, those who have seen him in his Kremlin office since he became President say he seems relaxed and self-confident.
``He certainly seems to be enjoying himself,'' says one visitor.
He also may have become easier to talk to in recent months. One recent visitor found him to be a better listener than in his previous role as foreign minister. Another said a Tass account of a meeting with Gromyko -- in which it appeared Gromyko had monopolized the meeting and delivered a predictable monologue -- was ``stranger than fiction.'' The real Gromyko, the visitor said, engages in lively give-and-take discussion.
Gromyko was a somewhat isolated, aloof figure during his years as Soviet foreign minister, according to Arakady Shevchenko, a Soviet UN official who defected to the United States. Gromyko rarely strayed from his office in the Soviet Foreign Ministry and his comfortable, well-appointed apartment and weekend cottage, Mr. Shevchenko says.
Consequently, it was somewhat surprising when, in January, Gromyko spent a week investigating shortages in Moscow shops and workplaces.
According to Soviet television, he listened to housewives complain about meat shortages, hospital patients gripe about monotonous food, and shoppers complain about footware.
Clearly, these issues were far removed from the superpower politics that dominated Gromyko's attention for the past 25 years. And the walkabout was barely over when rumors began circulating that it was done at the behest of Gorbachev, who wanted to scotch notions that the Soviet President was ignorant of the workaday concerns of his people, and to underscore Gorbachev's own commitment to an economic shake-up.
``He's adapted to the new style,'' says one Western diplomat.
Eventually, this diplomat predicts, the 76-year-old Gromyko may emerge as something of a ``father figure'' in the Soviet Union, a reassuring presence whose job it is to represent continuity in the midst of change.