MOSCOW — The Soviet government introduced historic legislation Monday that, after decades of tight controls, would assure the right of Soviet citizens to travel abroad and to emigrate.
Anatoly Kovalev, a first deputy foreign minister, told the Supreme Soviet, the country's Parliament, that the draft law would help remove "some of the last vestiges of the 'Iron Curtain.' " The official Tass news agency called it landmark legislation comparable to the East German decision last week to open its borders.
"The adoption of this law will create the legal guarantee of the right of everyone to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his own country, rights that we in various international agreements have committed ourselves to honor," Kovalev said.
Fyodor M. Burlatsky, chairman of the Soviet Human Rights Commission, told other deputies that between 500,000 and 600,000 people probably would apply to emigrate once the law is adopted and that 6 million to 8 million Soviet citizens would travel abroad next year on business or tourist trips as a result of the liberalization.
Emigration already is running at more than 15,000 people a month, and the United States alone is expecting to accept as many as 80,000 people in the present fiscal year.
The bill would make several important changes in Soviet emigration regulations by limiting to five years the time in which those with access to classified material would not be permitted to go abroad; by eliminating the veto that close relatives now have on the applications of those emigrating, and by providing for speedy processing of all travel applications.
The only remaining legal problem would-be emigrants face is alimony payments if they are divorced, but supporting regulations envision lump-sum payments or guarantees of continued remittances from abroad.
"This replaces the present collection of secret instructions, regulations and decrees that have governed these matters for so long," Kovalev said. "And it will put an end to the departmental and local standard-setting for those who travel abroad or emigrate.
"Practically any citizen will now be able to get a passport for travel abroad or for exit for permanent residence abroad."
But the legislation also requires Soviet citizens wishing to emigrate to win admission first to another country.
For many, that will be a growing problem as tens of thousands of Soviet Jews, Armenians and Germans as well as Russians now apply to enter the United States, West Germany, Canada and Australia. All of those nations have expressed concern about their ability to absorb such a large number of people and have tightened their controls on those they previously accepted as refugees.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has been so swamped by applications from Soviet citizens wishing to settle in the United States that it forwards them to Washington for processing and warns that perhaps only one in four will be accepted.
The legislation, once approved, will go a long way toward satisfying U.S. legal requirements of free emigration as the basis for such trade concessions as most-favored-nation status and export credits to finance American sales to the Soviet Union.
Emigration had been progressively liberalized in the past three years, and new regulations had reduced to 0.15% the proportion of applications rejected this year and had virtually doubled the number of emigrants to a projected 180,000 to 200,000 people.
The legislation, which has a government priority, will be discussed within the Supreme Soviet's committees before being debated again publicly and then voted on. Approval is expected within a few weeks.
The lawmakers, meanwhile, approved legislation Monday that, for the first time, provides for jury trials in serious criminal cases, where the penalty could be as high as death or 15 years.
Pressed on the Supreme Soviet by Burlatsky and other deputies earlier this month, the provision was included in a reform bill strengthening judicial independence.