Soviet Jewry advocacy groups here have expressed satisfaction with the amount of time Secretary of State James Baker spent discussing human rights concerns during his talks in Moscow last week with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
The groups were especially pleased that Baker spent about an hour with 15 refuseniks at the official residence of U.S. Ambassador Jack Matlock after arriving in Moscow on May 16.
This was in sharp contrast to his last visit to Moscow, when he refused to meet with refuseniks and other human rights activists as a sign to Soviet leaders of U.S. appreciation for human rights advances.
In a statement Saturday at the conclusion of his talks with Shevardnadze, Baker confirmed that he had raised human rights issues with the Soviet leadership.
“We stressed our continuing concern over the remaining refusenik cases in the Soviet Union and the need to resolve them as soon as possible.” he said.
“I also raised my concerns about anti-Semitism and the vital need for the Soviet leadership to speak out strongly against it,” he said.
Baker did not say whether he raised the continuing Soviet refusal to approve direct flights between Moscow and Israel, to handle the tens of thousands of Soviet Jews now making aliyah.
Shevardnadze suggested at a news conference that one way to ease the emigration problem was for the Bush administration to allow more Jews to come to the United States.
‘LISTENED PATIENTLY’ TO REFUSENIKS
Soviet Jews have been going to Israel in large numbers since last October, when the United States stopped granting refugee status to Soviet Jews who had emigrated with Israeli visas. All Soviet Jews coming to the United States must apply for U.S. visas at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, where there is said to be a backlog of over 100,000 applicants.
The United States currently has an annual quota of 50,000 refugees from the Soviet Union. In urging Washington to raise that ceiling, Shevardnadze nevertheless acknowledged that the United States has admitted more and more Soviet Jews every year.
The group of refuseniks who met with Baker and his aides was led by Leonid Stonov, who was recently given permission to emigrate after his wife, Natasha, visited Washington.
Natasha Stonov sat next to Baker at a White House ceremony marking Passover. During the ceremony, President Bush gave her a message to take back to all the refuseniks that “they have not been forgotten.”
Baker’s meeting with the refuseniks brought praise from the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and from the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
“The efforts of such distinguished, high-level U.S. officials to allocate quality, not ceremonial, time for such a lengthy and substantive discussion demonstrates the commitment of the (Bush) administration to consider seriously today’s pressing human rights issues and the plight of Soviet Jews,” said Pamela Cohen, president of the Union of Councils.
“Our reports from Moscow indicate that the secretary devoted a substantial amount of time and listened patiently to the presentation of the 15 individuals that were there,” said Martin Wenick, executive director of the National Conference.
The Moscow meeting was a prelude to the summit Bush plans to hold in Washington with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev from May 31 to June 3. Human rights issues will again be on the agenda.
A NEW CATEGORY OF REFUSENIKS?
So it was perhaps no coincidence that it was announced while Baker was in Moscow that the Supreme Soviet will take action on long-awaited emigration reform legislation on May 31, the day Bush and Gorbachev begin their talks.
Bush has made clear to the Soviets that he will not sign a trade agreement with the Soviets unless the reform legislation is adopted and implemented. The summit schedule calls for the two presidents to sign any agreements they reach on June 1.
The new legislation is also a condition set by Bush for a waiver of trade sanctions contained in the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. A trade agreement would be meaningless unless the trade sanctions are lifted.
Cohen of the Union of Councils praised improvements in the latest draft of the reform law, which acknowledges that every Soviet citizen has a right to leave the country.
She said the law also would adequately address the problem of Soviet citizens being denied permission to emigrate because of their access to state secrets.
But she expressed concern about a section of the law that creates a new category called “state security.” Cohen said the section “establishes separate grounds for a new brand of arbitrary, unreviewable refusal.”
She said it is unclear why this category was created or how it is different from state secrecy, which up to now has been used in an arbitrary manner.
In the meeting with Baker, Stonov warned that this new designation could create a new category of refuseniks.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.