Just a few years ago, the idea that Moscow could host an international human-rights conference would have seemed bizarre. Not any more. An exchange on human rights, broadcast live in the United States and the Soviet Union a few weeks ago, underscored this point.
An estimated 150 million people in the Soviet Union watched the satellite-transmitted debates between Soviet and American legislators. The picture of themselves that the Soviets gleaned from the stern lectures by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) was not a pretty one. It must have been jarring for Mikhail Gorbachev's fans, to say nothing of his foes. Remarkably, the panel in Moscow listened, conceding, if only grudgingly, that the Americans' criticism was not without merit.
Here are some further signs that the times they are a-changing in Moscow.
--Vadim Zagladin, top Kremlin policy-maker, publicly confirmed that Article 190, under which dissidents have been sentenced in the past for anti-Soviet activity, might be dropped from the criminal code, while Article 70, covering anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, would be narrowed in scope.
--Although reports about psychiatric abuses continue, the practice of treating political dissent as mental disorder may be coming to an end: All psychiatric hospitals previously supervised by the Interior Ministry are being transferred to the jurisdiction of the Health Ministry.
--Five percent of all precincts in the local Soviet elections that took place in June featured more than one candidate. Noteworthy also is the fact that top management positions in a growing number of Soviet enterprises are filled with the workers' consent.
--The Federation of Socialist Clubs, a loosely knit association of independent grass-root organizations, held its first meeting last August in Moscow. Its organizers vowed to fight all remnants of Stalinism, demanded the right to nominate candidates in local elections and hinted at the possibility of forming independent political parties in the future.
--Emigration from the Soviet Union has picked up pace in recent months, its current rate being at least 10 times what it was last year. Some veteran refuseniks such as Vladimir Slepak and Ida Nudel have finally been granted exit visas by the Soviet government.
--Without much publicity, the Soviet Union has been opening its doors to Jews who left in the 1970s and 1980s. They are now welcome to return, not as prodigal sons but as plain tourists. Soviet citizens with immediate relatives abroad can obtain travel passports and exchange rubles for dollars.
The first swallow does not the spring make, nor does the second or third. But at some point the West may have to acknowledge that the Moscow spring has arrived and make reciprocal moves. One gesture toward Gorbachev would be choosing Moscow as the site for the conference on the Helsinki accords.
The chief objection to this idea is that letting Moscow host the conference on human rights would bestow on it unearned honor. Indeed, it is quite possible that the Soviets would try to use the conference for propaganda purposes. But the risk is worth taking. It would be a mistake to demand that, before the Soviet Union could have the honor, it has to become a full-fledged political democracy. Some conditions should be met, however.
--The amnesty marking the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution must be extended to cover all political prisoners held under articles of the Criminal Code.
--Soviet citizens married to foreigners and wishing to go abroad should be reunited with their spouses.
--All would-be emigrants denied exit visas because of their access to state secrets must be provided with a written statement indicating the maximum period of time that they could be denied permission to leave.
--Representatives of Soviet dissidents should have access to the conference and be allowed to take part in its deliberations.
No one is suggesting that Moscow is a paradise for human rights. Its ways are still in flagrant violation of the U.N. Human Rights Charter. But the Iron Curtain has opened a crack, and the winds of change are sweeping through its Russian side. The day may be near when Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and symbol of the worldwide struggle for human dignity, will be able to address the international forum on human rights.
To mark these changes--and to encourage the Soviets to follow through--are reasons enough for holding the international human-rights conference in Moscow. Without further delay, let's convey to Soviet leaders the minimal conditions under which a Moscow conference could take place and gear up for a serious exchange.