Yelena Bonner did not get an appointment with the President. Anatoly Shcharansky did.
As Mr. Shcharansky, the irrepressible former Soviet dissident, was honored in the nation's capital yesterday, diplomatic observers noted the change in President Reagan's handling of the sensitive issue of human rights in the Soviet Union. From the harsh rhetorical approach he adopted when first in office, Mr. Reagan has moved to a strategy of ``quiet diplomacy'' to try to persuade Kremlin leaders to improve their human rights practices.
Because of that policy shift, Reagan declined to see Mrs. Bonner, the wife of Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, who is exiled in the city of Gorky. Instead she met with national-security adviser John M. Poindexter. The White House explained that the President did not wish to jeopardize either Mr. Sakharov's release and return to Moscow, or US efforts to secure the freedom of other Soviet dissidents.
Shcharansky, by contrast, is now a free man. Surviving nine years in Soviet prisons and labor camps, the champion of civil rights was released in February in an East-West prisoner swap and allowed to emigrate to Israel.
On a visit to the United States to increase support for Soviet Jewish emigration, Shcharansky was honored in a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda Tuesday. He urged lawmakers to work on behalf of the some 400,000 Soviet Jews who are still ``prisoners.''
The President was also scheduled to meet yesterday with the 'emigr'e, who has become a symbol of the intrepid struggle of Soviet human rights activists for a liberalization of Soviet society.
``Obviously there's a difference in the two cases [Sakharov and Shcharansky],'' a State Department official says. ``One man is out and one is still in. We would like the Soviets to release Sakharov. But the best way to help him is not to beard the Soviets too directly.''
For Reagan, this has been a learning process. Back in 1976 he criticized then-President Gerald Ford for refusing to meet with writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Since then Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and others have advised Reagan that a human rights campaign conducted in public is counterproductive, for the Soviets cannot be seen bowing to pressure from the West.
Reverting to the practice of his predecessors, the President came to adopt a low-key posture, pressing Kremlin leaders quietly behind the scenes -- as he did in his meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev -- but holding his verbal fire for suitable occasions.
Administration officials cite the results of such an approach, including the release in 1983 of a family of Pentecostalists who had settled themselves in the American Embassy in Moscow for four years. ``Quiet diplomacy had a lot to do with that release,'' says the US official. ``We took no public credit for it.''
The Soviets bend their policies to the political exigencies of the moment. Before and after the Gorbachev-Reagan summit meeting last November, they permitted the reunification of a number of Soviet-American spouses. Just before the summit they also let it be known that Mrs. Bonner would be permitted to go to Italy and the United States for medical treatment.
In the context of movement toward another Soviet-American summit, the Soviet leadership can be expected to take some other steps, administration officials say.
The West looks for improvement on many fronts. For instance, Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union has fallen off dramatically. Emigration of Germans, Armenians, and other ethnic groups is similarly down.
Most diplomatic experts attribute the clampdown to Soviet frustration over the deterioration of d'etente with the West, which peaked in the mid-1970s and then began to unravel. Once the Kremlin had rid itself of so-called troublemakers, moreover, it no longer felt constrained to keep the emigration spigot open.
In other human rights areas, too, there has been only limited movement since the so-called Helsinki Final Act was signed in 1975. The Soviets have allowed some reunification of families and improved conditions for foreign journalists. But the progress falls far short of the Helsinki standards. To the disappointment of rights organizations in the West, the Soviet leader has also harassed the many groups that sprang up in Eastern Europe to monitor compliance with the Helsinki accords. The Moscow chapter of the Helsinki Watch Committee, which Shcharansky helped found, was disbanded in 1982.
Asked on ``CBS Morning News'' yesterday what he would say to the President, Shcharansky said he would thank Reagan ``for all he has done for me and for Soviet Jewry and for human rights all over the world.''