Soviet Jewry activists trying to assess recent changes in Soviet policy on emigration rights and dissidents in general, have welcomed the unexpected release of political prisoners, including Jewish Prisoners of Conscience but remain strongly skeptical as to whether these moves indicate a genuine change of direction by the Soviet leadership or are merely a cosmetic device for propaganda purposes.
The consensus is that while the self-proclaimed Soviet policy of “glasnost” (openness) gives rise to hope, much more has to be done to prove Moscow’s good faith, particularly with respect to Soviet Jewry. Morris Abram, chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry observed Monday that “it is imperative to separate fact from fantasy.”
He noted that while the Soviet Union enacted what it calls a liberal new emigration decree and Soviet Foreign Minister Gennady Gerasimov spoke of a massive acceleration of Jewish emigration, “only 98 Jews were granted exit visas in January, up from 77 in December, hardly a massive acceleration.”
REAGAN ADMINISTRATION VIEW
The Reagan Administration has taken a similar view. It urged Monday that the release of the 42 prisoners be followed by the release of all political prisoners and POCs, as well as permission to emigrate to all Soviet Jews who want to do so.
“As we have consistently made clear to the Soviet government, we attach the greatest importance to improvements in the field of human rights, including the right to emigrate,” State Department spokesman Charles Redman said.
“We hope the recent statements by Soviet officials, that large numbers of Soviet Jews are being granted exit permission, will be followed by steps to allow the departure of all those who wish to exercise the right to leave,” Redman said.
He was apparently referring to a statement in Moscow by Samuil Zivs, chairman of the Soviet anti-Zionist Committee, that 500 Jews were granted exit visas in January. Fewer than a thousand were allowed to emigrate in all of 1986.
Redman urged that all prisoners and POCs in “confinement and exile” be freed and that they should not be required to “recant their past activities or limit future activities.” He stressed that the U.S. will be keeping a close watch on Soviet actions in the human rights area which “will have a positive impact on the climate of U.S.-Soviet relations.”
GAP BETWEEN PROMISE AND PERFORMANCE
Pamela Cohen, president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, responded Monday to the unexpected release from a labor camp of POC Roald (Alex) Zelichonok. “We are pleased by the announcement of Zelichonok’s release, but our joy is tempered with the knowledge that nearly a dozen other Soviet Jews remain in prison in labor camps,” she said.
“I call upon the Soviet leadership to move expeditiously in releasing the remaining Prisoners of Conscience and in processing the emigration applications of thousands of Soviet Jews who wish to leave the USSR.” Cohen stated.
Abram stressed in his statement the wide gap between Soviet promises and performance. “Soviet officials are guilty, not only of massive human rights violations, but of speaking out of both sides of their mouths,” he said, ‘glasnost’ from one side, and grievous misstatements from the other. These Janus-like utterances have the effect of throwing sand in the eyes of Soviet Jews and human rights activists everywhere.”
Abram said Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev must be asked “why did the Soviet Union begin its repression of the Jewish minority in the first place? And why, in the light of current representations of ‘glasnost’ are Jews still denied their human rights? Why are there still Prisoners of Conscience?”
UNUSUAL OCCURRENCE IN MOSCOW
The Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry reported an unusual occurrence in Moscow Monday where about 15 people demonstrated in front of the Palace of Culture on behalf of POC Iosif Begun. They included Begun’s wife, Inna and his son, Boris. The demonstrators held signs and posters in support of Begun’s right to be allowed to emigrate to go to Israel, the LICSJ reported.
They were not interfered with by the authorities and while some passersby shouted anti-Semitic epithets, others showed support by signing their names on the posters. According to the LICSJ, the demonstrations are continuing daily, joined by well known refuseniks.
Begun, 54, was sentenced in 1983 to 12 years in prison and internal exile. An electronics engineer, he was fired from his scientific research job after applying for an exit visa. At the time of his arrest in 1982, he had been giving Hebrew lessons which are banned in the Soviet Union.
Begun was one of several prominent POCs referred to by Jeane Kirkpatrick, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, at a press conference in Geneva Monday after her return from a visit to Moscow. She noted that he was imprisoned for teaching Hebrew and confined to a punishment cell for wearing a yarmulke.
The Soviet Union, she said, will have to give serious reconsideration to the problem of refuseniks denied the right to emigrate, denied religious expression and, in some cases, imprisoned and suffering malnutrition and lacking desperately needed medical care.
SOME HOPE SEEN ON ‘GLASNOST’ POLICY
Nevertheless, Kirkpatrick, whose militant anti-Communism was a hallmark of her tenure at the UN, said the new “glasnost” policy gives new hope for separated spouses, refuseniks and others who want to emigrate.
Later, addressing a session of the 43-member United Nation Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Kirkpatrick said she heard from high level Soviet officials some extremely interesting accounts of changes planned and changes already underway in the USSR. She said they spoke of new thinking and of democratization, though democratization Soviet style in a one-party system.
Kirkpatrick visited Moscow last week as part of a private delegation that included two former U.S. Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger and Cyrus Vance. They had a three hour meeting with Gorbachev.