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Freed Dissidents: How Free?

February 15, 1987

E. Robert Wallach, the American ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, had an appropriate reply when asked the other day to comment on the release of 140 jailed Soviet dissidents. "Everyone should welcome their release," he said. "But let us not forget that the system which put them in prison is still in place."

There is no question that some encouraging things have been happening on the human-rights front in Moscow. In December the Soviet Union's most famous dissident, scientist Andrei Sakharov, was allowed to return from seven years of internal exile in Gorky. The number of people allowed to leave the country appears to be on the upswing. Some experts think that they see a less repressive policy toward religious believers emerging.

Last week, in the most far-reaching step of its kind for many years, the Kremlin announced the release of 140 dissidents who had been jailed for "agitation and propaganda" against the Soviet state. Officials suggested that more such pardons were in the works. To quote Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov, "We are making an effort to have fewer people behind bars and barbed wire around here." Let's hope so.

Kremlin leaders, in relaxing the campaign against dissenters, plainly have Western public opinion very much in mind. It's significant, for example, that the announcement of the pardons was made to Western newsmen by an official of the Foreign Ministry; the regime has not gone out of its way to publicize the prisoner releases inside the Soviet Union.

It is hardly a coincidence, either, that the announcement of prisoner releases came only days before the convening in Moscow of a meeting to which hundreds of influential Western guests were invited. The Kremlin clearly hoped that evidence of a more relaxed policy toward dissent would help create a favorable climate of opinion for Mikhail S. Gorbachev's arms-control proposals.

The existence of self-serving motives, however, does not necessarily mean that the change isn't real. Gorbachev and his colleagues really may have decided that allowing freer rein to dissidents serves the long-term interests of the Soviet state. The reform of the laws under which dissidents have been jailed is in fact said to be under consideration.

Sakharov and others have pointed out, however, that those released so far are only a small fraction of the number of prisoners of conscience in Soviet camps, prisons and mental hospitals. It is still the government that determines, and apparently will continue to determine, the acceptable limits of dissent.

This point was driven home last week when, on several successive days, plainclothes police goons forcibly broke up demonstrations demanding the release of Jewish activist Josef Begun; a number of demonstrators and European and American correspondents were roughed up in the process.

Outsiders, while hoping for the best, should not give the Kremlin too much credit until and unless events demonstrate that the seemingly softer policy toward dissidents is not just a temporary tactic for foreign consumption, but a historic step toward a humane society.

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