WASHINGTON — U.S. and Soviet negotiators on Wednesday turned to a matter that has almost been overlooked in the talk about such crucial but remote issues as the phased elimination of nuclear missiles: They discussed the starkly human drama of 13 Americans and 13 Soviet citizens who are prevented by Soviet policy from living with their spouses.
Richard Schifter, assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, urged the Soviet Union to permit the emigration to the United States of its citizens who are married to Americans. It was an appeal that Schifter has made often in the past without much effect. State Department officials did not say how the Soviets responded to the plea Wednesday.
The divided spouses issue, as the bureaucrats call it, is a continuing source of friction between Washington and Moscow, in contrast to the apparent progress made by Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze on a treaty to ban intermediate-range nuclear weapons and on other topics.
About 90 Americans marry Soviet citizens every year, and most of these couples hope to live in the United States. Although emigration from the Soviet Union is tightly controlled, U.S. officials say that the Soviet government usually permits Soviet citizens to join spouses abroad within about six months of marriage.
But there are always some refusals, and they usually result in long and frustrating delays. Once people are turned down twice, they become eligible to be included on the list of cases that the State Department raises regularly with Soviet authorities. There are now 13 couples on this list, although other couples that qualify decline to be included because they doubt that it would be helpful.
The couples on the State Department's list have been waiting an average of 7 1/2 years. Late last month, the Soviets gave an exit visa to Matvey Finkel, allowing him to join his American wife of eight years, Susan Graham. It was the first case on the official U.S. list to be resolved since February.
Yet Keith B. Braun, a Detroit attorney who leads a group called the Divided Spouses Coalition, said there may never be a better time to put pressure on the Soviets. Braun, whose wife of three years, Svetlana, has been denied permission to emigrate, said that to continue to keep husbands and wives apart is embarrassing for Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
"The Soviets are very PR (public relations) conscious," Braun said in a telephone interview. "As we push this as an issue, they are going to want to get rid of us. We are such a small number but we keep causing them trouble."
Braun conceded that the Soviet authorities do not want Soviet nationals to marry foreigners under any circumstances.
"It is not just emigration that they don't like," he said. "The marriage itself is the reason."
But Braun said he is out to show Moscow that it is not as painless to harass Americans as it is to mistreat Soviet citizens.
"When they screw with Russians, they get away with it," he said. "When they screw with Americans, we don't take it. We know how to fight."
Braun praised Schifter's handling of the matter. He said the State Department official was thoroughly familiar with the details of all 13 cases on the list.
For instance, he said, when the Soviets say they prohibited his wife from emigrating because of security, Schifter replied, "What kind of security is it when the husband is allowed to stay in the apartment?" Braun said he has been permitted to visit his wife in the Soviet Union eight times even though Svetlana is prohibited from joining him in the United States.