Two dramatic events on opposite sides of Europe testify, not so much to the failure of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, as to the residual power of its ideas to worry and upset the Soviet Union.
The first: The last-minute air of crisis in Madrid as delegates from 35 countries stopped clocks and rushed in and out of meetings trying to bridge the impasse between the United States and the Kremlin on just how much time the European security conference should spend talking about human-rights violations and Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
Moscow resisted for nine weeks the idea of allowing the West six or more weeks in which to use the Helsinki forum as a way to draw world attention once again to its own behavior toward its citizens at home and toward Afghanistan.
The second: The sight of more than 100 furhatted, overcoated Jewish citizens of the Soviet Union crowded into the public reception room of the Supreme Soviet (nominal legislature) in Moscow Nov. 11.
The Jews chose the opening day of the Madrid conference, Nov. 11, to dramatize their pleas to the authorities to take quick action on Jewish applications to emigrate.
Until detente began to sour in the second half of last year, the Soviets allowed record numbers of Jews to emigrate. But this year, after Afghanistan, NATO defense spending increases, the Olympic Games boycott, and other disputes, Jewish emigration has dropped sharply.
Soviet Jews are still determined to use Madrid and the Helsinki Final Act to stage protests and engage the attentions of Western correspondents here.
They announced they were going on a symbolic three-day fast to show how urgently they wanted replies to their emigration requests. They pointed out that, although Soviet law requires answers to applications within two months, some Jews had waited for years.
They repeated complaints that Soviet rules had tightened in recent months and that in some Ukrainian cities, even invitations from relatives in Israel were being rejected on the grounds that only parents or children constituted close enough relatives to qualify.
The wider issue in all this -- whether Helsinki has had any effect on liberalizing Soviet behavior -- is not yet answered. The Kremlin's reaction was at first to crack down on dissidents, then to let out more Jews (from smaller cities, mainly, rather than from Moscow) in hope of influencing the Senate to ratify the SALT II treaty.
It may be that the Kremlin is moved more by the hope of concrete gain (SALT II, etc.) than by any number of international documents. But it has been surprised and displeased by the power of the Helsinki Final Act to stir up criticism and dissent to its own one-party totalitarianism.
Both events -- the impasse at the Madrid conference and Russian Jews crowding into the Supreme Soviet to dramatize the emigration issue -- sprang directly from the force of the Helsinki act. It illustrated the way that act has provided both Western states and Soviet dissidents with a platform from which to exert pressure on the Soviet Union.
Originally Moscow wanted the Helsinki process to ratify Soviet gains made in World War II. It wanted to talk about arms control in a context in which the West in effect recognized the division of Europe into Western and Soviet shperes.
Led by the US, the West made Moscow pay a price: parts of the Final Act that referred to individual, rather than government, rights. TThe Soviet answer so far has taken several forms.
To the West, it has said that it fully upholds the helsinki provisions by urging security confidence-building measures and supporting arms talks. It claims it fulfills the human-rights "basket three" by enshrining in the 1977 Brezhnev constitution such basic freedoms as the right to live, work, study, and support the state.
To its dissidents, Moscow has replied by a prolonged crackdown, arresting, jailing, or exiling more than 450 activists in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Vilnius, Riga, Yerevan, Tbilisi, and other cities since late 1976.
The Kremlin rationale is that by objecting to Communist Party rule, dissidents are disloyal, criminal, even treasonous.
The West closely watched Soviet behavior in Madrid. As the Soviets stalled and blocked an agenda agreement, Western capitals wondered if the Kremlin had decided to sink the entire Helsinki concept to match the grimness of other East-West tension.
From Moscow, that seems a premature judgment. It is more likely that the Soviet leaders decided that, given other tensions, they simply did not want to give the West week after week to make its points about dissidents and Afghanistan. TAnother consideration for the Soviets is that the Madrid conference is scheduled to wind up in March if it runs its full course. for the Soviets, it would be most inconvenient if their troops were to roll into Poland should events deteriorate there to the point where the Kremlin fell obliged to intervene.