WASHINGTON — The Soviet Union has agreed to permit 117 Soviet citizens to leave the country to join relatives in the United States, marking Moscow's most extensive family reunification gesture since Washington began raising the issue three decades ago, the State Department announced Tuesday.
Department spokesman Charles Redman called the Soviet promise "a positive step that will contribute to an improved atmosphere in our relations and will facilitate efforts to build on the progress begun at the Geneva summit last year" between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Redman cautioned that it will be impossible to be sure that Soviet officials will follow through with their commitment until the individuals actually arrive in the United States. But he said the decision "gives real meaning" to the Reagan-Gorbachev summit agreement to resolve humanitarian issues.
36 of 126 Cases
If the 117 individuals are all permitted to emigrate, it would resolve 36 of the 126 cases on the list of "divided families" that the U.S. government is urging the Soviet Union to allow to reunite.
Redman said the action would "make the largest single resolution of representation-list cases since the United States government began submitting such lists to the U.S.S.R. almost 30 years ago."
In addition, Redman said, Soviet officials have indicated that two other cases, one involving the spouse of a U.S. citizen and the other a person with dual Soviet-American citizenship, will be resolved soon.
Redman declined to make public the names of the 117 people who Soviet officials have said will be allowed to emigrate, but he said that members of their families are being notified. The Soviet officials did not name the people involved in the two other cases, he said.
The department spokesman said Soviet representatives informed U.S. officials of the decision Monday in Bern, Switzerland, during the closing hours of an East-West conference on improving human contacts across the Iron Curtain.
Once approval has been granted, Redman said, it usually takes several weeks for Soviet citizens to complete the paper work needed to leave the country. However, he added, the process sometimes can take much longer than that.
"These Soviet citizens must still go through several bureaucratic procedures before they are actually given an exit permit and foreign passport," he said. "When the Soviet citizen has exit permission, we are able to issue an immigrant visa quickly."
To illustrate the delay that sometimes follows such announcements, he said that of 33 families Gorbachev promised to release during the Geneva summit--all separate from the ones announced Tuesday--only 24 have been allowed to leave so far.
Redman said Soviet officials promised that one of the nine remaining cases will be resolved in the near future and that people in four other cases will be permitted to emigrate if they renounce their Soviet citizenship. "Of the remaining four cases, we have received unsatisfactory explanations or no explanation at all," he said.
In addition, he said, Washington has been pressing for exit permits for 21 spouses of U.S. citizens and for 20 dual nationals. Also, the United States has given Moscow a list of Soviet Jews who want to emigrate to Israel.
Provided Upbeat Ending
The Soviet announcement on family reunification provided an upbeat end to an otherwise frustrating conference in Bern. The United States vetoed a list of proposals accepted both by the Soviet Union and Washington's North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies to make marginal improvements in human contacts among the 35 nations that signed the 1975 Helsinki accords.
Redman said the United States concluded that the proposal would not "improve the prospects for future compliance" by the Soviet Union and its allies with the human rights provisions of the Helsinki agreements.
"Our goal at Bern was not more words," Redman said. "We sought to promote steps that would improve the lives of the individuals in all the CSCE (Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) states," he said.