Anatoly Shcharansky won his decade-long duel with the Kremlin Tuesday when he stepped across Berlin's Glienicke Bridge -- and away from Eastern imprisonment to Western freedom. It was presumably a bittersweet victory for this activist who staked everything on winning the right to emigrate for his fellow Soviet Jews. But he was released as an individual case and not, as he would have wished, as part of a general liberalization of Jewish emigration.
Scores of journalists, gathered at the old-fashioned iron bridge linking the southwest corner of West Berlin with East Germany, glimpsed little of Mr. Shcharansky or the three convicted Western agents freed with him as the American car and bus carrying them sped away. American officials sealed off the area around the bridge, kept reporters at a distance, and guaranteed that there was no possibility of contact between the freed men and journalists or ordinary Berliners.
Shcharansky was released first in a separate action. The US ambassador to West Germany, Richard Burt, greeted him on the bridge and whisked him away in the ambassador's car to fly to Frankfurt and on to Israel. One American official who talked with Shcharansky described him as looking somewhat the worse physically for his labor-camp years but as ``tough'' and ``razor sharp'' mentally.
The three other men were freed a quarter of an hour later and were apparently also flown out of West Berlin.
The three Westerners released with Shcharansky were not identified by Western officials. But according to the newspaper West German Bild Zeitung they were: Wolf-Georg Frohn, an East German sentenced for spying for the CIA; Dietrich Nistroy, a West German sentenced in East Germany for spying for West Germany; and Jaroslav Javorsky, a Czech convicted for helping Czechoslovaks escape to the West.
They were traded for five convicted or suspected Soviet-bloc agents: the Czech couple Karl and Hana Koecher, who were arrested in the US, and three men being held in West Germany -- Soviet trade official Yevgeny Zemlyakov, Detlef Scharfenort, and Polish Col. Jerzy Kaczmarek.
Shcharansky received a hero's welcome on his return to Israel. In Frankfurt he was reunited with his wife, Avital, who emigrated to Israel the day after they were married in 1974. She has worked tirelessly to obtain her husband's release.
In evaluating the exchange, the big question for Western observers now is: why Shcharansky and not the other famous human-rights dissident, Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov? In an interview with the French Communist newspaper L'Humanit'e a few days ago, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev vehemently ruled out releasing Mr. Sakharov.
Several possible explanations are being advanced for the Soviet willingness to let Shcharansky go, including:
Soviet judgment that the harsh treatment accorded Shcharansky in his 81/2 years in prison are sufficient to deter other would-be Jewish emigrants.
Moscow's hope that reasonableness and flexibility on secondary issues will increase pressure on Washington on Gorbachev's primary issue of stopping the Stratetic Defense Initiative (SDI).
Interest in establishing the precedent of trading Soviet dissidents for captured Soviet spies.
A desire to mend relations with Israel in an effort to improve Soviet leverage in the Mideast.
Evidence that the Soviet government has dissuaded Jews from applying to emigrate is seen in the sharp drop in exit visas granted in the past six years. The decline in Jewish emigration was personified, however, by Shchar-ansky, who in the mid-'70s acted as a press spokesman for Soviet Jews. He also served as a link between the Helsinki Watch Committee (an unofficial human rights watchdog group) and stay-at-home dissidents.
Previous Jewish spokesmen had been harassed for a few years, then finally allowed to leave. But Shchar-ansky broke the pattern. His harsh treatment in prison and labor camp was meant to be a lesson to others.
If the Soviets think this lesson has in fact been administered, then it makes sense for them to let Shcharansky go, especially since this demonstrates Soviet flexibility and reasonableness to Western public opinion and enables Moscow to demand reciprocal reasonableness on Washington's part in curbing SDI.
This reasoning clearly does not apply in the case of Sakharov, who is not Jewish, a onetime member of the Soviet elite who is seen as having betrayed the elite in becoming a dissident. In Sakharov's case, Soviet vindictiveness still seems to outweigh any desire to win goodwill in the West.
Release of Shcharansky could be of further value to the Soviets in increasing Moscow's leverage in the future in gaining the return of Soviet-bloc spies jailed in the West. There is no shortage of dissidents in the Soviet Union, and if these can be used as bargaining chips, so much the better for the Kremlin. The Soviets have repeatedly claimed that Shcharansky is a spy, and his inclusion in a spy swap also strengthens their domestic portrayal of Jewish emigrants as traitors to the motherland. The Kremlin is unlikely to lose face by freeing Shcharansky since, in including him in a spy swap, it can maintain its insistence that he was a US spy.
Finally, the Soviets have apparently decided that dealing only with Arab clients in the Mideast, to the exclusion of Israel, has limited rather than maximized Soviet influence in the area. In this context, releasing Shcharansky, a man who shows every intention of emigrating to Israel -- rather than to the US like most recent Soviet Jewish emigrants -- fits the pattern of recent Soviet probes about reestablishing Soviet-Israeli relations.