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Shcharansky: One Knight in Kremlin's Chess Game

February 13, 1986|MARVIN HIER and ABRAHAM COOPER | Rabbi Marvin Hier is dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the center's associate dean.

Jewish tradition speaks of two Jerusalems--one temporal, the other on high. For Soviet Jewry and human-rights leader Anatoly Shcharansky, the hope of ever setting foot on the cobblestones of Jerusalem's Old City this decade must have been as remote as a walk on the moon.

Yet suddenly, for Shcharansky and his heroic wife, Avital, the impossible dream has become a reality. For their supporters, a brief but sweet moment of relief and joy, all captured and heightened by the world's media. And for Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, a public-relations bonanza.

Why now? After all, Shcharansky languished in the Gulag for eight years. Until just a few months ago, the mere mention of his name prompted Soviet representatives to walk out of negotiating sessions.

Last fall's Geneva summit between Gorbachev and President Reagan seems to have been the event that altered the equation. The Soviets were clearly pleased by the Gorbachev team, which more than held its own. The Soviet leader was comfortable in the spotlight and projected the image of a confident, tough, co-equal of Reagan. But in Reagan's steadfastness and clearly delineated conservatism, the Soviets also saw elements to be reckoned and bargained with. Like it or not, they knew that the refusenik issue was affecting a variety of policy goals and objectives.

First, they have seen the issue of Moscow's reliability vis-a-vis international accords constantly called into question. In looking to knock out the "Star Wars" initiative and promote nuclear-weapons treaties, the Soviets were uncomfortable with constant reminders--not only from the United States but perhaps more importantly from countries like France and West Germany--that 400,000 Jews were being barred from reunion with their families. This in clear violation of the Helsinki Accords signed by the Soviet Union.

Further, one need not be a graduate fellow at Moscow's U.S.A. Institute to realize that Gorbachev, when he comes to the United States this summer for a second summit with Reagan, would surely face massive demonstrations in whatever cities he visits. Such a prospect would hardly be an inviting backdrop for a triumphant tour.

Then too, there is the Kremlin's continued frustration over the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which has blocked the Soviet Union from receiving most favored nation status and the broader economic potential it would carry. All roads, it seems, pointed to the human-rights agenda.

To address these problems and opportunities, the Kremlin has embarked on a sophisticated game plan worthy of a chessmaster. On the home front it sent signals that virtually nothing had changed. Actual emigration figures did not appreciably rise. A leader of Leningrad Hebrew teachers was jailed on trumped-up charges. In Tiblisi, 20,000 Georgian Jews face the prospect of the bulldozing of the Ashkenazi synagogue. Simultaneously, Yelena Bonner received permission to leave for medical treatment in the West. A number of Soviet-American couples were allowed to be reunited here in the United States. And now key Jewish activists Eliyahu Esses and Shcharansky have been released.

The Soviets also launched another, less publicized front. They have chosen to link the refusenik issue to the possibility of renewed diplomatic relations with Israel (a prerequisite for Soviet involvement in any Middle East peace process). Indeed, a ranking Soviet diplomat initiated a meeting with a representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles six weeks ago, in which he predicted a Soviet-Israel rapprochement. He also predicted movement on the emigration issue, to commence this month. Similar signals were floated to other groups. They were surely timed, in part, to hold out the promise for a rosier future if activists would only mute their criticisms in the coming months.

But while activists here, in Israel and in Moscow give the Kremlin high marks for cashing in on America's infatuation with heroes, they have already set their sights beyond the exchange on the Berlin bridge. First, they will be looking for hard numbers; will they approach the detente-era levels? Close scrutiny will continue to be paid to the Soviet media campaign that daily depicts Israel, Judaism and the Jewish people in almost demonic terms. There will also be attention given to the fate of Soviet Jewish citizens who seek to express their Jewish religious and cultural identities within the parameters of Soviet laws.

If euphoria over the release of a few refusenik "stars" diminishes the West's vigilance, then Moscow will have won a crucial round. It is clear that the Soviets are prepared to give up much to achieve their goals. We should pressure them to do no less. In the final analysis Shcharansky's arrival in Jerusalem is one giant step for a courageous couple, but only a small step for Soviet Jewry.

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