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Welcome Pre-Summit Gestures

October 31, 1985

The word leaked from Moscow is that Yelena Bonner, the human-rights activist and wife of dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, has been given permission to travel to the West for the medical treatment she has long required. Several lesser-known rights activists who have long sought to emigrate have suddenly been granted exit visas. These are welcome if unsurprising developments. As Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev prepares for his meeting with President Reagan on Nov. 19, some modest signs of more decent official behavior were to be expected. If the summit achieves nothing else, it has at least won freedom for a few unhappy Russians.

These permitted departures cannot, of course, be taken to represent any real shift in Soviet policy. Now as before, real Soviet attitudes toward human rights and fidelity to such solemn international undertakings as the Helsinki agreement are best judged by the status of those hundreds of thousands of largely ordinary Soviet citizens who have been denied permission to emigrate. Now as before, Soviet attitudes toward political dissent are best judged by the harsh treatment inflicted on such people as Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner who has been condemned to internal exile, and Anatoly Scharansky, who is dying by inches in a Siberian prison camp.

The fundamental fact remains that the commitment made by the Soviets in Helsinki a decade ago to respect freedom of conscience and religion and to permit freer travel continues to go unhonored, while those Russians who have tried to hold their government to its obligations have suffered persecution for their troubles. Maybe, just maybe, Gorbachev does indeed plan to ease some domestic repression as part of an effort to improve relations with the West. But a pre-summit gesture, however welcome it may be, is a long way from being a conclusive demonstration of that intent.

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