Speculating on whether Yuri Andropov, the new leader of the Soviet Union, is hardline or softline, conservative or moderate, is a fascinating but frustrating game. By Western standards, everyone is a hardliner. Mr. Andropov moved quickly into the most powerful position in the Kremlin - general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party - and, to stay there, he will have to serve the interests and purposes of the totalitarian Soviet state.
The question is whether he is capable of the kind of flexibility that will be needed to cope with the nation's troubles at home and abroad. There is some evidence that, although he can be ruthless - as demonstrated by his crackdown on dissent as head of the KGB - Mr. Andropov is not a hidebound ideologue unwilling to adapt to changing circumstances. The Hungarians, for one, seem to think he was in part responsible for the fact that Janos Kadar emerged as a pragmatic reformer after Moscow brutally put down the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Mr. Andropov was then Soviet ambassador in Budapest, and may have had an influence on Brezhnev's willingness to let Hungary experiment with a reformist policy.
As for his connection with the dreaded KGB, it might be mentioned that Mr. Andropov was not a career secret policeman but came up through the party ranks. When he left an earlier post in the important party Secretariat to become KGB chief in 1967, the move was an effort to batten down civilian party control of the secret police apparatus. Some Kremlinologists believe, moreover, that this experience gave him a useful knowledge of the world - and of the tolerance for change possible within Soviet society.
Be that as it may, there can be no doubt that what the Soviet system needs is a breath of fresh air blowing through its stodgy corridors.Mr. Andropov inherits an economy in shambles. It should gall him and his colleagues that 65 years after the Bolshevik Revolution the regime cannot provide the Soviet people with enough decent housing, or the most rudimentary consumer goods, or an abundance and variety of food on the table. There is hardly a country in the world that has not made better progress in feeding its people.
But the Politburo cannot hope to overcome the inertia of the leaden Soviet bureaucracy by mere tinkering. Brezhnev had his plans for reviving agriculture. But it will take fundamentally new, creative ideas - and the determination and courage to implement them - to turn things around . There is plenty of scientific and technical talent in the Soviet Union but it needs to be freed to come to flower.
Would economic reform lead to challenge of the political system? That, in Kremlin eyes, is always the danger. But surely even within the rigidities of the communist system there is room for innovation. The Soviet leadership has seen that Western-style music and jeans have not started a political revolution. Perhaps they would find a loosening of the lid, a bit more elbow room for Soviet citizens, far less threatening than they think.
Overseas, too, Mr. Andropov has his challenges. His predecessor bequeathed the strongest military machine in Soviet history. Yet that power counts for little in the Kremlin's ability to influence others. In few places in the world are the Russians respected, and even in Eastern Europe, their own backyard, people are struggling to get out from under Moscow's heel. Is that how Mr. Andropov wants Russians to be regarded? Merely as crude thugs that can command loyalty only at the point of a gun? Indeed the respect and stature which the Soviet Union so desperately seeks will remain elusive until it can show the world a different face.
Granted, things cannot change quickly. Mr. Andropov's rivals will be nipping at his heels at every turn. But if the new Soviet leader has the sophistication and capacity for flexibility - and even the poetic bent - some credit him with, he will fearlessly begin to move his country in new directions. This will be the test of his leadership.