WASHINGTON — For the Soviet Union, it has been an impressive display of human rights concessions: political prisoners set free, divided spouses reunited in the West, Jewish emigration allowed to soar.
Yet by Western standards, Moscow's human rights record remains dismal.
Despite the release since February of 200 political prisoners--the most since tens of thousands of dissidents returned from labor camps shortly after the death of Josef Stalin--more than two-thirds of the political prisoners whose names are known in the West are still in custody.
Although the Soviets have resolved 60% of divided spouses cases by permitting husbands, wives and fiances to join their loved ones in the West, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev has declared that he will never give Soviet citizens the right to leave the country whenever they wish.
And although Jews are being allowed to emigrate at the rate of 700 to 900 a month--compared to 914 for all of last year--the rate is still far short of what prevailed in the 1970s. And for those who remain in the Soviet Union, the government still imposes severe limits on religion and expression.
Reagan to Stress Rights
Gorbachev will come to Washington on Monday for his third summit meeting, and President Reagan has promised to give human rights equal priority in their discussions with the more high-profile issue of arms control. "Political, religious and economic oppression remains a solemn concern of the United States," Reagan said in his Saturday radio address. "So I will raise human rights forcefully during our meetings."
Demonstrators, expected to total tens of thousands, plan to march on the Capitol Mall today in support of Reagan's position that the Soviet human rights glass is mostly empty, not partly full. The demonstration, organized by a coalition of Jewish groups, is intended to spotlight the Soviet government's refusal to permit Jewish citizens either to practice their religion freely or to emigrate to another country, such as Israel or the United States, where they would be allowed to do so.
Referring to Gorbachev's program of openness, Morris B. Abram, chairman of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said, "Of course, all people welcome the idea of glasnost, but it has not yet been applied to the Jewish question."
A coalition of Christian groups plans to stage a much smaller protest Monday against Soviet persecution of Christians. According to Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), more than 200 Christians are in prison or psychiatric institutions for reasons of faith. In addition, he said, the government severely restricts Christian religious practices, especially by sects other than the Russian Orthodox Church, which is widely believed to be infiltrated by the KGB.
"This is not an attempt to detract from the harassment that Soviet Jews are under," Smith said, "but it is intended to remind everyone that the Soviets are not selective in their religious persecution."
Urged to Keep Up Pressure
Administration officials agree with the Jewish and Christian activists that Washington should keep the pressure on Moscow. Reagan himself said in a speech Thursday that trust between the superpowers can flourish only "when prisoners are released . . . the instruments of repression are dismantled and repressive laws and practices are abolished."
But some non-government experts warned that the Soviets would have to change their entire system to meet that standard, something they are unlikely to do. The danger, according to these specialists, is that Moscow may decide that because it can never satisfy the Americans, there is no point in doing anything.
Although a relaxed human rights policy might be popular among Soviet intellectuals, the non-government experts said, it would almost certainly be opposed by old-line political leaders, including some influential members of the ruling Politburo.
"Domestic pressures will restrain Gorbachev where human rights and emigration are concerned," said Thane Gustafson, a Georgetown University expert on Soviet policy. "Gorbachev can't afford domestically to be seen to give in to U.S. or congressional pressure on human rights or emigration."
In his interview with NBC News last Monday, Gorbachev was categorical in his refusal even to consider easier emigration policies. He accused the United States of trying to organize "a brain drain" by encouraging educated Soviets to leave the country.
'We're Protecting Ourselves'
"Of course, we're protecting ourselves," he said. "We will never accept a condition when the people are being exhorted from outside to leave their country."
U.S. critics of Soviet emigration policy scoff at the "brain drain" charge because almost all Soviets who apply for exit visas automatically lose their jobs and, thus, their usefulness to the Soviet economy.