The exaggerated affection and respect lavished on Marshal Tito by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev during their long meetings this month carry ominous implications for chances of post-Tito Yugoslavia keeping free of the Kremlim's domination.
When they met in Belgrade last November, Brezhnev tried - without the slightest success - to bully the ornery old guerrilla fighter who led his nation out of the Comintern nearly 30 years ago. The Russian's abrupt switch from bruising to loving when he met with President Tito in Moscow Aug. 16 to 19 raised well-founded suspicions in Washington, Western Europe and Yugoslavia itself.
The ostensible triumph of Tito actually puts the Kremlin in a position to say this when the 85-year-old leader finally leaves the scene: We got along well with Tito, but his successor has changed the rules of the game - and we do not accept that change.
Such a claim could quickly become a pretext for open Soviet political intervention in the Yugoslav Communist Party. The excuse would be that Tito's successor was embarked on an anti-Soviet course that Tito himself never would have countenanced, as shown by the cordiality of their August 1977 talks in Moscow.
Soviet meddling in Yugoslavia has failed to produce lasting political benefit for the Kremlin since the first Soviet-Yugoslav break in 1948. Relations between the Communist superpower and the first breakway Communist country since then have run hot and cold.
The latest shift by Brezhnev to unexpected all-out support of Tito with unprecedented warmth is ironic: While proving the failure of past efforts to undermine Tito, it sets the stage for a dangerously different post-Tito assault on Yugoslavia, Claiming a deviation from today's apparent intimacy.
In their private sessions in Belgrade last November, Brezhnev pushed Tito hard to grant Moscow mahor new military assets in Yugoslavia, as follows: the right to overfly Yugoslavia, for transport of military materiel to African countries for any other reasons; the right to build what would amount to a fully equipped Soviet naval base at Yugoslavia-a Adriatic port of Tivat-Kotor; a new military arrangement that would help bridge the gap between the Warsaw Pact aand nonaligned Yugoslavia.
Tito flatly refused these and other Soviet "requests," which sometimes were couched by the imperious Brezhnev more in terms of outright demands than requests. This confrontation, behind closed doors in Belgrade, was not at all reflected in the official communique.
Two weeks ago in Moscow, not one of these demands was made by the very same team of Soviet negotiators, headed by Brezhnev, that Tito had faced down in Belgrade. This time , the official communique did not accurately reflect the excessive warmth of their meetings in Moscow when Brezhnev pinned more medals on Tito's chest than ever had been received before by a leader outside the Soviet orbit.
Besides Moscow's devious intent of advertising intimacy with Tito today in order to harass his sucessors tomorrow, this love feast had other sources. One was the Soviet Union's current difficulties in international Communist politics.
The Soviets are in trouble with Western European Communist parties claiming the right of autonomy from Moscow. By sweet-talking Tito, Brezhnev was trying to make him a bulwark against further problems with Eurocommunism.
Moreover, Tito was due in Peking 10 days later for his first date visit there. With the Chinese Communists pressing the United States for a tougher stance against the Soviet Union and with Western European Communist parties increasingly refusing to kowtow to Moscow, Brezhnev did not want Tito to arrive in Peking angry at the Russians.
Compared to Soviet plots against Yuhoslav independence after Tito's death, these are clearly peripheral issues. Accordingly, Tito's triumph is drenched with the irony so familiar to the totalitarian power politics of the best 40 years. The future of post-Tito Yugoslavia remains critical. Today's Soviet pretense that no serious issues exist between the two countries will become tomorrow's excuse for accusing Tito's successors of turning against Moscow, when there will be no Tito around to give the lie to that accusation.