WASHINGTON — Because of recent political changes in Moscow, the United States no longer expects any release of prisoners or other significant progress from the Soviet Union on human rights issues before next month's summit meeting, a senior State Department official said Monday.
Until a few weeks ago, State Department officials believed that the Soviet Union was on the verge of releasing a large new group of political prisoners and those detained for their religious beliefs from Soviet prisons and mental institutions. According to State Department estimates, the Soviet Union has freed about 235 such prisoners in the last year, but about 400 others are still being detained.
"We had expected certain things to happen this fall that so far have not happened," said the State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It was expected that a great many people would be released and that Nov. 7 would be the date."
Nov. 7 was the 70th anniversary of the revolution that brought the Soviet Communist Party to power.
Richard Schifter, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, and other U.S. officials visited Moscow last week for a pre-summit discussion of human rights issues.
According to the senior official, they came back convinced that the Soviet leadership has for now adopted a much tougher line on a number of human rights issues, including the release of political prisoners, Jewish emigration, the right to demonstrate and a proposed liberalization of Soviet criminal law.
An official at Helsinki Watch, the citizens' group that monitors human rights in the Soviet Union, said Monday that her organization is still hoping for a release of political prisoners before the Dec. 7 meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Throwing in Towel Too Early
"Too bad they (the State Department officials) are throwing in the towel so early," said Cathy Fitzpatrick of Helsinki Watch. "There are still two weeks left (before the summit). . . . They all went over to Moscow last week, and they must have come back empty-handed."
Fitzpatrick noted that "each time they (Soviet officials) let out a batch (of political prisoners), they tie it to some international thing. That's how they work, unfortunately."
Last February, Soviet authorities announced the release of 140 political prisoners as part of what Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady I. Gerasimov called "our policy of democratization." He said that the Soviet Union was reviewing other cases too, and that "the aim is to have fewer people behind bars and barbed wire."
Those still in detention include more than 200 confined for their religious activities on behalf of groups such as the Lithuanian Catholic Church. Other so-called "prisoners of conscience" include Latvian, Ukrainian and Estonian writers and intellectuals. According to Helsinki Watch, at least 130 detainees are confined in psychiatric institutions.
The senior State Department official said he was particularly disappointed that Soviet authorities have not yet released such prisoners.
"Whereas in the past we had been told it was just around the corner, there was a degree of uncertainty about that now," he said.
The senior State Department official said he believes that the new Soviet attitude is a reflection of political changes that date back to speeches given by two leading members of the Politburo, senior ideologist Yegor K. Ligachev and KGB Director Victor M. Chebrikov, while Gorbachev was on vacation last summer.
The ouster last month of Boris N. Yeltsin, Moscow city party leader, who had urged the party leadership to carry out its reforms at a faster pace, "sends a really chilling message to the bureaucracy," the official said.