Special Interview Soviet Hype on the Emigration Issue
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Special Interview Soviet Hype on the Emigration Issue

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McGill University law professor Irwin Cotler, an internationally known human rights activist, believes the Soviet Union is presently conducting “a human rights offensive magisterially organized by Mikhail Gorbachev” but signifying little or no change in human rights policies, including the emigration of Soviet Jews.

In an exclusive interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency here, Cotler described his confrontation with two ranking Soviet officials at the recent Vienna review conference on the Helsinki Accords. He also provided a six-point litmus test to determine whether recent Soviet statements and acts are a smokescreen or an earnest move to improve human rights for Soviet citizens.

In Cotler’s opinion there is a public relations offensive characterized by the release of high profile refuseniks and dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, from internal exile in the closed city of Gorky.


Other facets of the offensive which Cotler called “unprecedented in Soviet history” are the numerous articles in the Soviet press denouncing the conviction of innocent people; the enactment of new emigration statutes–the first codification of emigration regulations; and Gorbachev’s new, seemingly open style of diplomacy.

It also consists of a willingness to discuss the cases of dissidents and acknowledgement of past mistakes, Cotler said.

“I came to the conclusion after five-and-a-half hours of talks with Yuri Kashlev, Ambassador and head of the Soviet delegation (at the Vienna conference), and Vladimir Morozov, senior spokesman of the Foreign Ministry, that we were confronted by a human rights offensive of unsurpassed magnitude,” Cotler told the JTA.

“I mentioned to the two leaders that while their declarations on human rights and the release of prominent dissidents is to be welcomed, the overall situation contradicted their declarations. In a word, that there remains under the rule of Gorbachev a persistent and pervasive assault on human rights in the USSR.

“‘Our declarations,’ they replied, ‘are not propaganda for export’ and there has been a real change in Soviet policy, a ‘new orientation.’ They hastened to add that all these changes will take some time to be implemented. Both insisted that what was needed now was ‘a spirit of mutual trust and good will’.”


Cotler said that when he brought up the specific case of Ida Nudel, “a case on which I worked for the last eight years and told them I could see no reason for her imprisonment and now for her banishment instead of allowing her to rejoin her sister, Ilana Fridman, in Israel, Morozov and Kashlev said that there were ‘state reasons’ which prevented her departure.

“I objected,” Cotler said, “quoting Gorbachev himself who declared that no one can invoke state reasons after a lapse of more than 10 years, or in Nudel’s case, 15 years have elapsed since she first asked for a visa.”

Cotler said he told the Soviet officials, “As long as you keep her a prisoner, nobody is going to believe your statements on human rights.” He said they reminded him of his conversation with the Soviet Justice Minister Alexander Sucharev in Geneva in November 1985, about imprisoned Soviet Jewish dissident Anatoly Shcharansky — and six weeks later Shcharansky was released, indicating also a change in Nudel’s fortunes.

“I said to the leaders of the Soviet delegation in Vienna that Ida Nudel was a symbol for the fate of Soviet Jewry as a whole and that I was talking about tens of thousands of refuseniks, some in detention for their justified and legal right to emigration,” Cotler said.

“They told me that the very day we met, November 7, the Soviet government was making public in Moscow a new law regulating emigration.”


Cotler said he concluded their conversation by telling them that real test of their statements will be verification of the following measures:

Will there be a significant increase on Jewish emigration? Personally, I am concerned that the new law will serve to restrict rather than to permit emigration.

Will there be a resolution of long-standing cases of family reunification? There has been no movement, so far, on 11,000 refusenik cases.

Will there be a release of Helsinki monitors and Prisoners of Conscience? In fact, more Jewish Prisoners of Conscience have been arrested under Gorbachev than under his predecessors.

Will contacts between Soviet citizens and foreigners, tourists, coreligionists and scientists be facilitated?

Will there be an abatement of religious and cultural oppression?

Will there be an end, once and for all, to the state-sponsored anti-Semitism?

Cotler said he met with Shcharansky recently in New York and he characterized the Soviet Union as “a curtain of words.” Cotler said: “Without the above verification measures the Soviet Union remains a curtain of words.”

He added: “The question remains: is what is now going on in the USSR a mere ‘curtain of words’ or will it open a window of light for the humiliated and persecuted people in the Soviet Union?”

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