In the arcane world of the Kremlin, power shifts always occur behind the scenes. But when the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee met last week, there was more than the usual number of surprises. First, party ideologue Konstantin Chernenko suddenly reappeared on the Politburo rostrum to make the opening speech. One of the principal competitors in the power struggle to replace Leonid Brezhnev last November, the snowy-haired Chernenko largely disappeared when Yuri Andropov took command. Then, at a later session of the 1,500-member Supreme Soviet, the country’s national parliament, Chernenko nominated his former rival to the office of president. Saying that the Politburo was “in complete unity,” Chernenko’s activities provided an unusual display of solidarity.
But one of the most surprising developments was Andropov’s consolidation of power at a time when he is seriously ill. The 69-year-old leader now holds the offices of party general secretary, chairman of the Defence Council and president of the Soviet Union. He is the oldest Soviet leader ever to assume power but he has managed to accumulate the troika of powerful positions in only seven months. By contrast, it took Brezhnev 13 years to reach the same pinnacle. However, unlike Brezhnev, who began his rule in robust health, the weakened Andropov must rely heavily on a team of supporters, including such powerful former competitors as Chernenko.
The failing health of the Soviet leader has already affected his ability to govern. Two weeks ago the former KGB chief had to be propped up by aides as he walked to a reception for visiting Finnish President Mauno Koivisto. His aides also politely asked Koivisto not to shake Andropov’s badly trembling hand. There is already lively speculation about the cause of Andropov’s symptoms. Kremlin watchers say Andropov suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and Western diplomats in Moscow report that he has a serious kidney ailment which requires dialysis treatment at least once a week. One Washingtonbased Kremlinologist suggested that Andropov’s frailty may have been the reason that he was unable to fill three vacant seats on the 14-man Politburo. “It is a signal that he has not consolidated his political strength and that he is still struggling for power,” he explained.
The ailing Andropov did manage to name two Politburo members and close allies—Grigory Romanov and Mikhail Solomentsev—to the highlevel Communist Party Secretariat. Romanov,
60, is a tough apparatchik who ran the city of Leningrad for a decade and was a Brezhnev protégé. He is also remembered for a famous 1978 scandal involving a
priceless set of dishes once owned by the Empress Catherine II. Romanov borrowed the plates from the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad for his daughter’s wedding, but guests smashed much of the set during the traditional toasts to the newlyweds.
Even though he has been in power for only a brief period, Andropov has still managed to give his rule a tone of pragmatism. One Soviet official who has worked with him describes Andropov as a man who “thinks in categories of reality, not in categories of dogma.” Indeed, in the first seven months of his rule he has struck out at widespread corruption and crime and dismissed hundreds of state officials at all levels. Only last week two members of the Communist Party Central Committee, Sergei Medunov and Nikolai Shcholokov, were dismissed because of “mistakes they made in their work”—a clear reference to corruption in their ministries.
But skeptics say that the Soviet Union’s chronically inefficient government and economy need more than periodic housecleaning campaigns. Despite a 4.1per-cent surge in industrial production in the first five months of this year, the growth rate of the nation’s GNP is steadily declining.
Western critics believe that the problems plaguing the economy are structural. The absence of individual incentive creates shoddy workmanship and grudging
service. Bureaucrats can veto one another’s decisions, creating bottlenecks in the nation’s production system. As well, everyone must rely on an elephantine bureaucratic central planning structure. But Chernenko’s opening speech last week, which set the tone for Soviet politics during the coming months, gave no hint that the leadership is planning any fundamental changes in the Marxist system. Besides, the powerful Soviet bureaucracy would likely resist most reforms. Said one state bank official: “We know what we have now. We are going to stay with the system.”
Nor is the Andropov team likely to make any major shifts in foreign policy. In a report to the Supreme Soviet, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko issued a blunt reminder of the Kremlin’s “legitimate interest” in Poland. That seemed to be merely a rephrasing of the socalled Brezhnev Doctrine which holds that the Soviets may take whatever steps are necessary to protect their interests in Eastern Europe. And in an allusion to Pope John Paul Il’s emotional return to his homeland last week, Andropov himself pledged a continuing hard line on Poland’s independent Solidarity trade union. “Poland remains an inalienable part of the socialist community,” he declared.
The Kremlin leaders saved their sharpest rhetoric for the West. In a particularly harsh denunciation of President Ronald Reagan’s administration, Gromyko said, “Today a militarist intoxication pervades the United States.” American officials immediately interpreted the statement as an attempt to counter Reagan’s characterization of the Soviet Union as the “focus of all evil in the modern world.” Still, after Gromyko’s tough speech, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz issued a 35-page policy statement that hinted that Reagan, for his part, may be about to adopt a more conciliatory line. Said Shultz: “We will respect legitimate Soviet security interests and are ready to negotiate equitable solutions to problems.”
The Andropov regime seems likely to continue many of the policies it inherited from Brezhnev. But no one is certain how long the Politburo’s elderly rulers will last. Death and retirement are steadily depleting the leadership ranks. Meanwhile, Kremlin watchers continue to scrutinize new personnel at lower levels where Andropov needs a strong power base to carry out his limited reforms. Any sign that he is unable to put his own allies in place may indicate even more profound power struggles are about to begin in the shadowy corridors of the Kremlin.
-JARED MITCHELL in Toronto, with William Lowther in Washington and correspondents ’ reports.
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