For months, Moscow's small community of human rights activists, dissidents, and ``refuseniks'' has been waiting for a ``signal'' from the Kremlin. That signal may finally have come with reports that Yelena Bonner -- wife of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and herself a human rights campaigner -- may receive permission to leave this country and seek medical treatment in the West.
The ``signal'' -- if that is what it is -- implies that the Kremlin sees human rights as a matter for negotiation and that if Washington cooperates in seeking political compromise, then the human rights situation here could improve.
Mrs. Bonner, who has been in internal exile since May 1984, was convicted last year of slandering the Soviet Union. Her husband, Mr. Sakharov, has never gotten a trial. Yet he was banished to the ``closed'' city of Gorky, some 250 miles east of Moscow, five years ago.
Both have been in poor health, and Bonner has repeatedly applied for permission to seek medical treatment in the West for an eye ailment that threatens her vision. Soviet officials have denied her request.
Now comes word from Victor Louis -- a well-connected Soviet who writes for a British newspaper and who has often acted as the Kremlin's messenger -- that Mrs. Bonner was called in by Soviet officials two days ago and told to reapply, and that her application would be granted.
Mr. Louis insists the report is accurate. He implies that it is also conditional -- that she must return to exile after her treatment is over and that Sakharov must remain behind.
Bonner has formerly undergone medical treatment for her eye condition in Italy, but sources imply that she may well go to the US this time. Bonner's daughter, Tatyana Yankelevich, lives in Newton, Mass., and Boston has been mentioned as one possible destination for Bonner when -- and if -- she is allowed to leave.
The exit visa -- if it is indeed granted -- comes less than a month before the superpower summit in Geneva and less than a week before United States Secretary of State George Shultz arrives here for a visit. Western analysts say the timing is no coincidence.
[Asked about why Bonner was in the news now, Efrem Yankelevich, husband of Bonner's daughter, said, ``The reason is quite obvious, isn't it?'' The move was a concession, he said, by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in an attempt to reduce US concern about human rights issues and to pave the way for discussion of issues that Mr. Gorbachev cares about: space-based defensive weapons and disarmament.]
While some welcomed the move, others expressed regret that Sakharov was not also allowed to leave, since he also is reported to be ill.
Moreover, diplomats here note that with Sakharov forced to stay behind, Bonner will be under pressure not to ``step out of line'' in the West by being too critical of Soviet treatment of her husband.
President Reagan this year joined a growing chorus of international protest over the treatment of Sakharov and Bonner, asking the Soviet government to release the two and allow Bonner to get treatment in the West.
But Western diplomats were careful to suggest that this latest move is clearly designed to place pressure on the US to either tone down its criticism of Soviet human rights practices -- or to respond with some ``concession'' to the Soviets.
And diplomats are careful to stress that the move needs to be put into a larger perspective.
``We think that it's simply a basic right for anyone to be able to seek the best possible medical care, wherever they choose, whenever they choose. That seems to be pretty fundamental,'' says one ranking Western diplomat.