Jewish Groups, U.S. Express Dismay at Delay on Soviet Emigration Bill

Reports that the Soviet legislature has indefinitely postponed action on long-promised emigration reforms have dismayed Jewish groups and brought a stern warning from the U.S. government.

The reactions came after the Reuters news agency quoted a member of the Supreme Soviet’s foreign affairs committee Monday as saying that conservative lawmakers have put the long-pending emigration reform bill on hold because they fear it would lead to a mass exodus and “brain drain” from the Soviet Union.

In response, the State Department warned Monday that President Bush will not waive remaining economic sanctions against the Soviet Union until the Supreme Soviet approves the promised emigration reforms.

Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, called it “regrettable” that the Soviets “haven’t been able to move and put their laws in conformity with their international obligations.”

Micah Naftalin, national director of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, predicted that the bill would be revisited in September, when Moscow is to host a human rights conference sponsored by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a multinational human rights monitoring group.

The CSCE, which will be holding its first-ever meeting in the Soviet Union, drafted the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which call on the treaty signers, including the Soviets, to guarantee their citizens the right to emigrate freely.

The Soviets are seeking a complete waiver of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the U.S. Trade Act, which bars the U.S. government from giving preferential trade benefits, known as most-favored-nation status, to countries that it contends do not have satisfactory emigration policies.

Bush signed a new trade pact here last spring with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and last December announced a partial waiver of Jackson-Vanik to provide the Soviets with up to $1 billion in agricultural credits through this July.

NOT HIGH ON GORBACHEV’S AGENDA

But that waiver took place after Gorbachev had promised, at a 1989 summit meeting in Malta, to work to pass the emigration law.

The Soviet “failure to act” more than a year later suggests Gorbachev has been “forced to face a political reality and that this isn’t very high on his priority agenda,” Wenick said.

The State Department statement said that “until the Soviet government enacts new emigration legislation,” Bush will not submit the trade agreement to Congress for possible ratification.

Under the trade pact, the Soviets would receive most-favored-nation trade status and thereby have U.S. duties lowered on their imports to the level imposed on most U.S. trading partners.

Wenick agreed that the Soviets have not done anything to deserve receiving a full waiver July 1, when Bush has to make his next decision. “I don’t think that they’ve stepped up to the plate on this,” he said.

Ironically, the proposed emigration bill would generally help non-Jewish ethnic groups more than it would help Jews, since Jews, like ethnic Germans, are currently singled out to emigrate in large numbers on the rationale that they are being repatriated to their respective homelands.

But the bill would also help those Jews who are currently refused permission to emigrate based on their alleged past access to “state secrets” or because of outstanding obligations to so-called “poor relatives,” who claim they rely on the prospective emigres to subsist.

Despite the problems with getting the bill enacted, Wenick expressed satisfaction with what he called the Soviet’s current “de facto” liberal emigration policies toward Jews.

GROWING IMPACT OF CONSERVATIVES

But he expressed concern about the conservative Soviet politicians’ influence in blocking a vote on the bill, which he said could translate to influence over the de facto policy at present.

“Unfortunately this points to the continuing political chaos in the Soviet Union,” said Wenick. “It does not portend well for the future.”

Naftalin of the Union of Councils, who is leaving for a two-week tour of the Soviet Union, said that as long as Gorbachev stays in power, “I don’t have much faith in their willingness to pass the law.”

But should Boris Yeltsin, the radical reform-minded president of the Russian republic, grasp power from Gorbachev, “I think that Yeltsin would be stronger on this issue,” Naftalin said.

Yeltsin “has been a proponent of the whole range of human rights and pro-democracy reforms,” Naftalin said. “I think that he ties human rights and independence for the republics and democracies all in the same package.”

Wenick said it is unclear who would be better on Jewish emigration issues and added, “I’m not sure that Yeltsin is the logical successor to Gorbachev.”

But he observed that among the competing Soviet political forces, conservatives “have been the least friendly to general issues of democracy and particularly Jewish issues” like emigration.

The continued rise in Soviet conservatism “presents a threat to the interests of the Jewish community,” Wenick said. But he added that “the bottom line is that under Gorbachev, the doors are open” for Soviet Jews to emigrate.

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