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Soviet party congress ends with status quo holding firm

The conservatism -- the determined nonchalance about succession in a superpower ruled by a few old men -- On March 3, for the first time in Soviet history, a Communist party congress closed without making a single change in the 14-member ruling Politburo, in its nonvoting "candidate" members, or its secretariat.

The stand-pat-ness amounted to a resounding reaffirmation of what Soviet analysts like to term the "stability" of the 16 years Leonid Brezhnev has been in power. They contrast that stability favorably with the fits and starts of US policy.

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but for most diplomats and other foreign analysts here, it also served to underline the leadership's continued reluctance to bring younger blood into senior posts and to lay the groundwork for transition to a post-Brezhnev era.

If, as one Soviet observer commented, the lack of even a token shift in the Politburo telegraphs to the party faithful a reassuring "continuity," it would also seem to militate against the kind of reorientation needed to tackle the economic problems Mr. Brezhnev has outlined.

Indeed, after announcing his own reelection as party chief amid shouts of "hail, hail" from the congress, President Brezhnev delivered a closing speech devoid of any hints at such fundamental retooling.

He called for "immense effort . . . discipline . . . imagination . . . initiative." But neither here nor in his much longer opening address eight days earlier was there any concrete, coherent indication of how a turnaround of perennial economic woes would be accomplished.

Very few Kremlin-watchers had expected any major Politbutro changes at the party congress. But a minor shift had been considered likely, or at least possible. Arvid Pelshe, senior member of the Politburo at age 82, was thougt a possibility for retirement. Analyst also speculated that one or more of the eight candidate members might be elevated to an enlarged Politburo; or that, at the very least, new candidate members might be added.

As to why none of this happened, the experts could only guess. Minor reshuffles in the Politburo can be made between party congresses. Several have occurred in the past few years.

"But," one Kremlinologist said, "it seems feasible that Mr. Brezhnev resited the idea of any changes, in that they might serve as a reminder of his own and other Politburo members' mortality."

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President Brezhnev, having succeeded the unceremoniously dismissed Khrushchev , presumably also has a well-developed concern over potential rivals. Confronted with major policy disappointments he frankly put before the congress, he may well have thought the time riper for reaffirmation that for reshuffles.

Mr. Brezhnev was confident and strong of voice, if at one point defensive in phrasing, in his brief televised statement at the congress's end. One foreign delegate told this reported the President had shown no visible signs of weakness during his marathon keynote speech.

But the delegate seconded private suggestions by foreign and Soviet analysts that the abrupt cut in live transmission of the opening address reflected concern that Mr. Brezhnev might not have been able to go the three-hour, 40 -minute distance without appearing infirm.

As things now stand, Mr. Brezhnev has no single obvious successor. The two most-often-mentioned candidates, Andrei Kirilenko and Viktor Grishin, are 74 and 66, respectively. The average age of the Politburo is about 70.

There are two somewhat younger members of the Politburo, two among the candidates, and more in the Central Committee, of which the Politburo is the ruling core.

The committee was enlarged March 3 from 287 to 319. That move was expected, consistent with Mr. Brezhnev's consensus leadership, which promotes favored party members without necessarily driving others out.

One prominent Soviet analyst noted that there is "genuine debate" at Central Committee sessions. But he added: "Political experience, in a real sense, can be gained only in the Politburo."

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