Bonn — Nine p.m., Tuesday night, may go down as one of the little landmarks on the road to Soviet reform. That's when technicians at the Munich headquarters of Radio Free Europe and its sister service, Radio Liberty, first noticed the Soviet Union no longer was jamming their broadcasts into the East bloc.
Hours later, employees at Deutsche Welle, West Germany's official radio service, found their Russian-language programming was also no longer being blocked. And, Israeli radio reports no more interference.
The moves appear aimed at boosting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost (openness). If the jamming machines are shut down for good, the action would show the Soviet leader's willingness to allow a freer flow of news and information.
``It's damaging for people to be able to point out that glasnost isn't complete,'' says Iain Elliot, associate director of the US-funded Radio Liberty. The halt to jamming was a natural step, he says.
It's also not bad for Moscow's image.
West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl pressed the issue of radio jamming during his October meeting with Mr. Gorbachev.
And the decision to open up the airwaves was carefully timed - coming days before the Soviet leader visits the United Nations in New York and then travels to Britain. Meanwhile, this week's actions also could help clear away one of the stumbling blocks holding up East-West negotiations on conventional arms reductions in Europe.
Some negotiators in Vienna attempting to set up these talks have pointed to continued jamming of some Western radio services as evidence that Moscow isn't willing to abide by its pledges to respect human rights. Jamming - in which one radio signal is used to block reception of another - is a violation of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act.
There's also an economic incentive for the Soviets to stop jamming. It costs the equivalent of millions of dollars a year to operate jamming stations.
These are resources Gorbachev is going to need if he hopes to get his nation's creeking economy running smoothly again.
``When we first heard there was no jamming, we were a little skeptical,'' says G"unter Bill, a spokesman for Deutsche Welle, based in Cologne. ``In the past, they've stopped jamming for a few hours - just so they could service their equipment.''
Many analysts view this week's developments with caution. ``Jamming can be turned off, and it can be turned on again,'' says one West German government source.
Moscow stopped jamming BBC in January, 1987. Five months later, Voice of America found the barrier had fallen for it, too. But jamming of the two services was halted once before - between 1973 and 1980 - only to be put back in place after the surge of the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland.
Even now, the Soviets haven't thrown the airwaves wide open. Deutsche Welle's broadcasts to Afghanistan are still being obstructed. Mr. Bill, the West German spokesman, says he expects this to last at least until all Soviet troops are pulled out of that country. Meanwhile, both Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia still jam the signals of Radio Free Europe.
Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were created by the US during the peak of the Cold War, and refer to themselves as ``surrogate'' radio stations for the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Unlike other Western news agencies emphasizing international news, these services offer native-language programs heavy on local news and commentary.
``The decision to stop jamming creates many new opportunities for us,'' says Gene Pell, president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. ``For the first time, we won't have to conduct our dialogue through a wall of static.''