The Soviets: Changing the Guard

After Brezhnev's 18-year rule, the U.S.S.R. gets an enigmatic new leader

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In response, the Soviet leadership is all the more determined not to give up any part of what will doubtless be remembered as Brezhnev's most lasting legacy, an unprecedented defense buildup that has, for the first time, put the Soviet Union roughly on a par with the U.S. militarily. Some Americans, including Reagan, argue that the Soviets under Brezhnev actually achieved a position of strategic superiority that seriously threatens the U.S. in the years ahead. Still, many specialists in the U.S. and Western Europe believe that the transfer of power in the Kremlin presents an opportunity to relieve tensions and, ultimately, to reduce the level of nuclear and conventional forces on both sides. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger expects Andropov to make friendly overtures to the West as he attempts to consolidate his authority. "The major impact Brezhnev's death will have on the Soviet Union is that the country will be preoccupied for the next months, maybe years, by leadership problems," says Kissinger. "Thus we may be facing a peace offensive in which they will try to get some of the immediate tensions out of the way."

The other important foreign policy problem inherited by Andropov is the Soviet Union's deep, longstanding quarrel with China. In the months before his death, Brezhnev made several speeches that signaled a willingness to reduce tension, but neither country is under any illusion that a breakthrough will be possible on major points of contention.

At home, Andropov faces an economy plagued by mismanagement, low labor productivity and sluggish technological progress. The economic growth rate has been steadily declining, and food shortages are growing more acute.

How will Andropov deal with these challenges? U.S. officials believe that the very fact of replacing an ailing leader who was apparently not well enough to devote more than a few hours a day to his responsibilities will make a big difference. Says a senior Administration expert: "Andropov is a far more decisive man than Brezhnev had been for some years."

Most experts agree that Andropov does not yet possess and may never achieve the power necessary to effect profound changes in the Soviet Union. It took several years before Khrushchev and Brezhnev were able to assert themselves as the Soviet Union's unchallenged leaders. Says Harvard's Adam Ulam: "The process of succession does not begin with the death of a leader, nor does it end with the designation of his successor."

Though Andropov may soon be able to add one or two younger supporters to the Politburo, it may be some time before significant changes in policy are evident because the old guard is solidly entrenched. In the last years of his stewardship, Brezhnev was unwilling to dilute his power by infusing new blood into a Politburo that was packed mostly with his longtime comrades and cronies. When Brezhnev died, only two of the voting members of the Politburo represented the younger generation of leaders: Grigori Romanov, 59, and Mikhail Gorbachev, 51.

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