MOSCOW — For the first time since the Soviet Union began letting small numbers of its citizens emigrate to the West nearly 20 years ago, the government has adopted and published a law setting out the conditions under which people may leave the country.
The new emigration decree, which goes into force Jan.1, has been welcomed by some in the West as a sign that the Soviet leadership, under Mikhail S. Gorbachev, is turning toward a rule of law and perhaps even a measure of liberalization.
But those who stand to gain or lose the most from the new law--the thousands of Jews and others who have tried unsuccessfully, many of them for a decade or longer, to join family members in the West--lean toward a much more pessimistic view.
11 Years of Waiting
A Jewish engineer who, with his wife, has spent 11 years waiting to be reunited with their daughter and grandchildren in Boston, said: "People in the West seem to think, well, a new law. Isn't that nice. But it is worse than no law at all. It simply legalizes injustice."
Like many others, this man and his wife were barred from their professions when they first applied to leave and have worked at menial jobs ever since.
According to independent groups of Jewish intellectuals in Moscow who have studied the new emigration law closely, it does little more than codify and make public the highly restrictive, unpublished regulations already in force. Although the law sets out a wide range of conditions under which an exit visa may be refused, it prescribes no circumstances under which the state is obligated to let a citizen leave.
Law Vaguely Worded
The vague wording of the law, moreover, appears to give the authorities unlimited scope of action, either to open the floodgates of emigration or, as appears more likely, to constrict the flow to the tiny trickle of people--100 or so a month--who are currently being allowed to leave.
"It is a rubber law, completely arbitrary, that violates other Soviet laws as well as international agreements on human rights that the Soviet government has signed," Dr. Valery N. Soyfer, a Moscow geneticist, said in a recent interview.
Soyfer, who for eight years has been denied permission to emigrate, was one of 33 so-called refuseniks who submitted a detailed critique of the law to the authorities last month. The group has received no reply.
One of the international agreements the Soviet Union has signed, they pointed out, is the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says in article 13 that "everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."
Since 1968, approximately 300,000 Jews, ethnic Germans and Armenians have been allowed to emigrate after obtaining formal invitations from relatives in the West. In 1979, the peak year, 51,300 Jews were allowed to leave, but in the early 1980s, amid deteriorating relations with the West over Afghanistan and new Soviet missile deployments, the number of emigrants fell drastically.
Virtually no Germans or Armenians are leaving now, and the number of Jews granted exit visas has declined to about 1,000 a year, out of an estimated 200,000 or more who would leave if they had permission.
During all this time, no published legal code governed the granting of exit visas, which are often refused without explanation, or on essentially meaningless grounds. People seeking to emigrate are often told, for example, that their application is "not in the interest of the state" or, more simply, that it is netselesoobrazno --pointless.
Then, last May, at a meeting in Bern, Switzerland, of the 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Soviets agreed to publish their regulations on emigration and travel abroad.
It is not clear why, with emigration its lowest ebb in two decades, Moscow decided to do so, but diplomats and refuseniks suggest several reasons.
For one, the emigration law--actually a decree from the Council of Ministers, or cabinet--is consistent with a new effort to codify and clarify a tangled undergrowth of regulations, decrees and legislative acts, many of them unpublished, that has grown up over the years."
In the Soviet system, laws or decrees with the force of law emanate not only from the Supreme Soviet, the nominal parliament, but also from the Council of Ministers and even individual ministries. According to the government newspaper Izvestia, some 10,000 so-called sub-legal acts from the ministries are currently in force, often in conflict with one another. This legal weed-lot forms one of the many obstacles to Soviet leader Gorbachev's campaign to revitalize the economy.
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