Yuri Andropov has moved with speed and skill to take Brezhnev's place as Soviet leader, but it is too early to conclude that he has a firm grip on the top job. To fend off future challenges and to put himself in a stronger position for tackling some of the massive problems he has inherited (Poland, Afghanistan, a stagnant economy, mounting demographic threats), he needs to show that he can deliver some gains for the Soviet Union.
But where? Iran is too risky. Reconciliation with China is too complicated. There are no obvious quick victories in Africa any more - only mounting costs and strains. Why not try closer to home - bring Albania back into the Soviet bloc?
Few countries have isolated themselves from the world as completely as Enver Hoxha's Albania. He sided with Mao when he broke with Moscow in the late 1950s. Albania dropped out of COMECON, the East European ''common market,'' in 1961 and formally left the Warsaw Pact in 1968. Albanian-Chinese friendship flourished during Mao's most doctrinaire final years. When Chinese policies began to change , Albania's became more rigid.
Unique among communist states, Albania has had the same leader since World War II. He has never tolerated sustained relaxation in economic or cultural life. Though Albanians were once predominantly Muslim, all religion has been outlawed since 1967.
During the past year Albania has leaped into the news twice. It announced that its premier, Mehmet Shehu, committed suicide in late 1981. This past October, Albania claimed it had repulsed a seaborne invasion force. The Yugoslavs claim both stories are fabrications, but all observers agree that there is growing tension in the country. The Hoxha era is coming to an end.
Can a smooth succession be arranged? Hoxha held a party congress this fall and seems to be grooming his chief ideologist, Ramiz Alia, as successor. But other younger leaders are moving up in the party. It is the kind of situation that invites Soviet meddling. It may, indeed, already have begun.
An Albania that opened itself to Europe would be welcomed, but the change would hardly be seen as a major gain for NATO. For the Soviets, however, bringing Albania back into the bloc would be a genuine strategic advance. Bases on the Albanian coast could provide the Soviet Navy with facilities superior to any others available to it in the Mediterranean. Soviet aircraft could fly from secure Albanian land bases into the central Mediterranean, outflanking Turkey and Greece. Soviet admirals and marshals could not fail to be pleased with such low-cost gains.
The advantage of having Albania back in the bloc would be even greater in the political sphere. The greatest long-range dividend would be to increase Moscow's leverage on Yugoslavia. This is likely to be appealing to Andropov, accustomed as he is by 15 years of directing the KGB to thinking in terms of large-scale political subversion with long-term goals. Albania is made to order as a base for destabilizing Yugoslavia.
Albania's population is nearing three million. Nearly a million and a half Albanians live across the Yugoslav border in the ''autonomous region'' of Kosovo , and they have one of the highest birthrates in Europe. The harder Yugoslav leaders have tried to develop Kosovo economically and the more cultural autonomy they have given its Albanians, the more intractable the political problems have become.
The new university at Pristina has 25,000 students. They are a major source of discontent. Per capita income in Kosovo is at least twice as high as in Albania (lowest in Europe). Kosovo Albanians enjoy religious freedom. It matters little. Their orientation toward Tirana has intensified as Yugoslavia has fallen into economic troubles and post-Tito leaders are beset by uncertainties. Illogical? Perhaps, but nationalism is always in some degree illogical. That is why it is so easy to exploit as a means of destabilization.
Though its Albanians account for only 7 percent of Yugoslavia's population, they occupy a strategically vital region and one for which Serbs have deep historical attachment. Raising Kosovo to the status of a constituent republic of the Yugoslav federation - a demand heard increasingly both in Kosovo and from Tirana - is feared as a prelude to de facto secession. Secession would almost inevitably provoke a military response from Belgrade.
One can envision a sequence of events such as that the Russians encouraged in the Horn of Africa, supporting Somali irredentism against Ethiopia and then coming to Ethiopia's rescue when the Somalis attacked. The whole process took a decade and a half in the Horn. It could go faster in the Balkans. Andropov needs victories sooner, and less messy. Encourage Albanian demands on Yugoslavia; then come to Yugoslavia's rescue and end up with a grip on both Albania and Yugoslavia - and perhaps a version of the South Balkan federation Tito once dreamed of.
To bring Yugoslavia back into the Soviet Empire would mean rectifying one of Stalin's most serious losses. It would also bring to fruition one of Russia's oldest ambitions in Eastern Europe. The military gain would be obvious. And the message for rebellious Poles would be clear. Reconsolidation of Russian strength in the Balkans would underscore the futility of aspiring to loosen ties anywhere in Eastern Europe.
It is a grand design but is it do-able?
Andropov would have to start by getting Albania under Soviet hegemony. Will the stubborn Albanians oblige? Will they hang together when Enver Hoxha departs? It remains to be seen.
Changes need not occur abruptly. The KGB must already have agents in place in Tirana. For a Soviet leadership which, even under the most cautious Brezhnev, did not hesitate to exploit far more complex situations in Africa and Asia, Albania would hardly seem to be a daunting challenge. There was good reason to let it go its own way while Tito was alive. With Tito gone, whole new horizons have opened up. Discontent in Kosovo also proved containable while Tito was alive. It flared up as soon as he left the scene. The KGB must have its agents in Kosovo, too.
Yugoslavia has enjoyed and benefited from almost three and a half decades of nonalignment between East and West. Few there will want to give up this status lightly. The problem is not what Yugoslavs - or Albanians, for that matter - want , but whether they are capable of pulling together and defending their interests as they define them. If they are not, Moscow may find the temptation to play for high stakes in the Balkans irresistible.