Soviets stingy -- but unpredictable -- about letting their people go

Last month a Russian artist named Iosif Kiblitsky abandoned a 36-day hunger strike and, with it, hopes for emigration.

Whether he ate or not, he was told, he wasn't going to get exit papers. Period. Then, a few days ago, he was suddenly informed he would get his visa after all.

''Amazing,'' said a Western ambassador.

Overall, the Soviets remain stingier toward emigration than they have been in years. They are still harassing, or arresting, or confining, dissidents. When Soviet officials talk of ''human rights,'' they still mean guaranteed employment and cheap housing, not Western-style democracy.

Yet the turnaround with Mr. Kiblitsky is one of a series of odd occurrences in recent days on the emigration front.

On July 4, the family of Viktor Korchnoi, the chess grandmaster who defected to the West, won a six-year struggle for permission to join him. Their brief air hop to Vienna represented the first instance of Soviet agreement to allow relatives of a defector - a traitor, in the official lexicon - to leave.

Late July 5, Soviet authorities delivered another surprise. Having pressured and restricted a tiny, unofficial peace movement since its birth a month earlier , the Soviets were said suddenly to have conveyed willingness to let some of its roughly dozen core members out of the country.

The case of the artist Kiblitsky, meanwhile, is interesting in another context. Married to a West German schoolteacher, he is one of five ''divided-family'' protesters who began a joint Moscow hunger strike in May. One of them has left for the United States. The other four have reportedly been told they will be allowed to go.

One, married to a defector, went off her fast when advised by authorities to return to her home town and apply for emigration papers there. She took this as an encouraging signal, although, so far, there is no indication the visa is in the pipeline.

Another pipeline - the planned Siberia-West Europe link targeted by US economic sanctions - could help explain the Soviets' apparent reversal on Mr. Kiblitsky. Particularly at a time of bad relations with the US, and of tension between the US and its own allies, Moscow presumably wants to avoid unnecessary friction with Western Europe.

And at a time when the Soviets are cheering antinuclear movements in the West - and are encouraging widened links between the Russian church and Western religious groups that have joined the antinuclear surge - the Kremlin may conceivably want fewer unofficial Soviet peaceniks around.

Diplomats suggest another possible line of reasoning: that by granting exit visas to some members of the fledgling domestic peace group, the Soviets hope to discredit it by suggesting that its members are more interested in emigration than in disarmament.

One founder of the peace group has been under effective house arrest since mid-June. He announced he would soon begin a full fast to press for an end to official harassment.

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