Kremlin policy goes on automatic pilot in Chernenko absence
It's a time of straws in the wind in the Soviet Union. And that is not just because the wheat harvest is coming in. It's because of a series of moves lately by the Soviet leadership - and, more importantly, one move it hasn't made. For seven weeks, it has not presented Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko in public - feeding speculation that he may be ill.
And during his absence, the Kremlin has resorted to some of the same devices it used during the last months of the brief tenure of former Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov. Then, it used newspaper interviews and statements by officials to give the impression that Mr. Andropov was still at the helm of the Soviet state even as he lay hospitalized in serious condition.
There is, of course, no assurance that is happenning again. But some analysts say a familiar pattern seems to be emerging here.
Over the weekend, for example, an interview with Mr. Chernenko appeared in Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper. That was a favored method of communication during Andropov's long absence from public view last year. In fact , an interview with Andropov appeared in Pravda just 17 weeks before his death in February.
And following that, during a press briefing Monday, a Soviet Foreign Ministry official declined to say whether Chernenko had ended his summer vacation and was now back at work in the Kremlin.
Instead, Vladimir Lomeiko, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, pointed to the Pravda interview as proof that Chernenko ''is carrying out his duties as general secretary of the Central Committee and chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet.''
That language was reminiscent of the phrasing used by Kremlin spokesmen to assure questioners during Andropov's illness. In past years, the Soviet leader's return from vacation has been confirmed in official press reports. This year, that has not been the case.
Still, routine public notices have been issued in Chernenko's name, and three letters or statements by him have been released since his last public appearanceon July 14. And, to be sure, his absence from the public spotlight has only lasted seven weeks - compared with seven months for Andropov.
But what about the substance of statements made in Chernenko's name?
They indicate that the Kremlin is showing few signs of compromise - while Chernenko is out of the public eye.
In fact, some Western analysts in Moscow speculate that Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko continues to dominate the Kremlin's foreign policy, perhaps in the absence of Chernenko. And they say it is marked by unwavering bitterness toward the United States in general, and the Reagan administration in particular.
Mr. Lomeiko denied, however, that there is any Soviet effort afoot to poison relations between the two countries. Still, he claimed the US bears sole responsibility for the failure of virtually every negotiation governing arms control or disarmament in the recent past.
The sense of urgency to negotiate seems oddly lacking in recent Kremlin actions. Lomeiko, for example, indicated that the Soviet Union will stay away from negotiations in Vienna in September over space-based weaponry - even though it was the Soviet Union that first proposed those negotiations. Chernenko, however, hinted in his interview with Pravda, that the Soviets might be more open to reviving strategic arms control negotiations if the US agreed to Moscow's proposal for a ban on antisatellite weapons and a moratorium on space-weapons testing.
But the US is not likely to agree to a moratorium on the testing of space-based weapons before the negotiations begin - and therefore, the Soviets say, there is no point in beginning the talks. The US also wants to include ground-based nuclear weapons in the discussions as well - but the Soviet Union says it has already refused to negotiate on these weapons, and objects to their inclusion in the Vienna talks.