Review meetings of the Helsinki Accords are slow, often angry affairs that seem to produce only hazy results. But they are an important measure of the mood of nations: the degree to which many of the world's most powerful countries are willing to work together on vital issues. For this reason, the third review meeting that opens in Vienna today is particularly important. It may help determine how far and how fast the superpowers and their allies are willing to move on nuclear disarmament.
The first part of the meeting will probably be dominated by discussion of last month's superpower summit in Reykjavik, Iceland. United States Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze will meet in Vienna for the first time since Iceland.
Both sides say they want to get disarmament talks going again, even though they fail to agree on exactly what was achieved in Iceland. And both want to enlist Europe's support for their respective positions. Mr. Shultz and Mr. Shevardnadze are scheduled to meet on the afternoon of Nov. 5, and the early morning of Nov. 6. Diplomats from both sides say that the two will concentrate on the Reykjavik package of disarmament proposals. Soviet officials profess skepticism that the talks will produce anything substantial.
A senior Western diplomat, however, told journalists in Moscow that Washington viewed the meeting as an opportunity to ``test the reality of Soviet intentions'' on arms control. The US plans ``to pick up where [it] left off in Reykjavik,'' the diplomat said.
Washington wants clarification of Soviet views on a number of key issues, including strategic nuclear weapons. Shultz, however, will probably urge the Soviets to hand the discussions back to the arms control experts in Geneva, where the more complex issues can be clarified and the finer details worked out.
Despite their criticism of the US since Reykjavik, the diplomat continued, the Soviets do not seem to have changed their position in Geneva.
Both sides talk of devoting particular attention at the conference itself to human rights. Shultz's recent attacks on the Soviets' overall rights record and President Reagan's blasts on Soviet occupation of Afghanistan probably foreshadow the US approach.
Western countries are expected to call again for the lifting of restrictions on emigration, and to point in particular to the huge backlog in the number of Soviet Jews who reportedly want to leave. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel said recently there were 3,000 Jewish families want to leave.
The US will probably also draw attention to the case of about 16 US-Soviet married couples who are being denied permission to leave or to reunite.
An ``alternative'' Vienna conference with the participation of former political prisoners Anatoly Shcharansky and Yuri Orlov will intensify the pressure on Moscow. One of the US's aims in raising human rights violations, observers say, will be to try to make the point that the Soviet style has changed under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, but not its substance.
Perhaps with this in mind, Yuri Kashlev, a senior member of the Soviet delegation to Vienna, told journalists in Moscow last week that his government would be presenting several new initiatives on humanitarian questions at Vienna.
``There will be no forbidden themes, no taboos'' at the conference, he said. The fact that several officials have used the phrase ``no taboos'' recently suggests that it may be part of an official Soviet Communist Party document that lays out guidelines on human rights, dissidence, or other related issues.
Mr. Kashlev did not say what form the initiatives would take, but hinted that new measures on emigration and the reunification of families were under consideration. Moscow's main interest, however, seems to lie in security talks - Basket 1 of the Helsinki Accords.
The Soviets seem surprised and frustrated by the West European response to Reykjavik. They had expected support for the medium-range missile agreement sketched out in Iceland - which would remove medium-range missiles from Europe and limit the total number of warheads to 100 each - and anger at the way US adherence to its Strategic Defense Initiative (or ``star wars'') prevented the agreement from being carried out.
Instead, several Western countries have expressed concern at the post-nuclear threat of the Warsaw Pact's conventional forces. The Soviets will propose that the recently ended Stockholm conference on confidence and security building measures be mandated next to conduct negotiations over reducing conventional forces throughout Europe.
The Associated Press reports from Vienna:
Recent Soviet human rights gestures obscure the Kremlin's systematic violation of international rights accords, said a report released yesterday by the private International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights.
The report listed ``increased deaths, beatings, and torture, exhausting labor that has led to an increse in work-related accidents, lack of medical care, and denial of visits and letters for years at a time.'' It said an estimated 10,000 Soviets are political prisoners. The few released in recent years ``report that conditions are the worst they have been in a decade,'' it said.