Is Yuri Andropov truly No. 1? Or has the real struggle to succeed Leonid Brezhnev only just begun? If Andropov is It, is he a "closet liberal" or a case-hardened KGB chief who will crack down on dissidents? Is he a hawk or a dove? Will he choose continuity, or dare to experiment with radical domestic reforms, or perhaps embark on foreign adventures as the best way of consolidating his grip at home? How's his health?
We have been witnessing a great national squint at the inscrutable; a clamorous demand for clear answers that is all out of proportion to the supply. The single most important thing to know about the meaning of the Soviet transfer of power is how much the honest experts admittedly don't know.
Now this may strike you as a frightening thought: one great nuclear superpower incapable of reading the intentions of the other. But it becomes less frightening if our inevitable ignorance at this early stage in the transition is acknowledged by a hardheaded readiness to simply wait and see.
It's generally agreed that Andropov is more intelligent, more worldly than any of the other likely choices or most of the Kremlin leaders of the past. And so? Administration experts seem to conclude from that that he will be a more dangerous, wily adversary. They conclude, as well, that his quick, smooth succession means that the power struggle had worked itself out during the last year of Brezhnev's illness and that the new man is well entrenched. They see his "liberal" image as no more than the result of a clever "disinformation campaign" to offset his record as a tough KGB cop.
But other specialists, equally qualified, think his KGB experience in international and domestic intelligence has given him exceptional understanding of his country's needs and of the ways of the world and the United States. Accordingly, he could be less likely to miscalculate and more likely to turn from adventurism abroad to the terrible problems of the Soviet economy. The swift transition can be read as a sign of weakness, rather than strength -- as a collective decision to go the "caretaker" route and see how things shake out. The tough-guy reputation of Andropov, as ambassador to Hungary during the 1956 uprising, is countered by his later "liberalism" as party secretary in charge of liaison with the Eastern bloc countries.
Besides, a number of Kremlin-watchers insist, the hawk-dove, liberal-conservative labels don't apply across the board. The new man could be both flexible and creative in domestic policy and hard-line in foreign policy. Or it might not matter--he could be no more than a figurehead, controlled for now by a collective leadership that is itself divided. This would argue against the likelihood of the Soviet "first step" the president insists upon. It would even argue against sudden or very specific U.S. initiatives. They could provide a poor test of true intentions at a time when the new regime might not be sufficiently shaken down to be able to give a considered response.
"It takes two to tango," was the president's slaphappy, one-liner analysis of the U.S.-Soviet relationship the other day. Still, if a tango is what he really has in mind, that's an improvement over the rock-and-roll approach of the past two years. Webster's defines a tango as a "South American dance with long, gliding steps and dips." Done right, it requires patience, discipline, some mutually agreeable sense of direction, and a certain minimal civility -- whoever takes the lead.