The Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev has made a number of ``human rights gestures ... that may have obscured the government's continued and systematic violation of international human rights accords.'' That is one of the conclusions of a study of Soviet human rights practices by Helsinki Watch, a private human rights monitoring group in the United States.
The picture that emerges from the 350-page study of the Soviet Union under Mr. Gorbachev is the gradual relaxation of controls for the Soviet elite, but continued repression of most of the Soviet populace.
The organization issued nine separate reports covering a number of Eastern European countries, as well as Yugoslavia and Turkey. However, it found the most numerous and serious violations of human rights agreements within the Soviet Union.
The Soviet Union is one of 35 countries that signed a comprehensive agreement on European security and co-operation 11 years ago in Helsinki. The agreement, known as the ``Helsinki Accords,'' is being reviewed at a conference in Vienna.
The abuses documented in the reports, notes Helsinki Watch executive director Jeri Laber, ``reflect deep structural violations of Helsinki commitments - the right to freedom of expression, of movement, of association, of religion; protection against political imprisonment and torture; the right of minorities to express their cultural heritage.''
Helsinki Watch concludes that human rights monitors within the Soviet Union are taking the brunt of the Kremlin's wrath.
The Soviet civil-rights movement that flowered in the mid-1960s, the report concludes, suffered a ``ruthless crackdown'' and has now ``been virtually destroyed through arrests, imprisonment, internal exile, and forced emigration of its activists.''
Of the 100 Soviet citizens who have formed nongovernmental groups to monitor the Kremlin's compliance with the Helsinki Accords, ``all have been harassed,'' and 36 are now imprisoned or exiled. Four have died in prison camps. Two Lithuanian Catholic priests, the report claims, ``have been killed in automobile accidents under suspicion of foul play by the KGB,'' the Soviet secret police.
According to the report, the KGB uses a variety of nonlethal, but nonetheless brutal, tactics to silence dissent. It notes, for example, that artist Yuri Kiselyov, who has no legs, has been beaten on a number of occasions in order to discourage his campaign for better treatment of the handicapped.
Soviet authorities claim they are now allowing more openness in cultural expression, the arts, and literature. The report notes, however, that the KGB has stepped up seizures of literature that it deems subversive or slanderous. A Soviet citizen can still be punished if caught with a copy of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's ``The Gulag Archipelago.'' Even Boris Pasternak's ``Doctor Zhivago'' is banned, despite official hints that it may soon be published inside the country.
The report documents that in the Soviet Union mail is still opened, phones are still tapped, and surveillance is still widespread. And some citizens - like ethnic German activist Johannes Rausch - simply disappear into the maze of prison camps and psychiatric hospitals maintained by the KGB.
Nor are foreigners safe from harassment. British Rabbi Howard Ingram was expelled for reading from the Torah, the Jewish scripture, with Soviet Jews in Leningrad. An American diplomat, Ronald Harms, was beaten in Leningrad by unknown assailants after meeting with a Soviet dissident.
The Soviet bureaucracy, as depicted in the report, seems able to use a variety of devices to work its will. There are, for example, cases of young Jews applying to emigrate to Israel, then being quickly drafted into the military, and finally denied permission to emigrate because military service has given them access to state secrets. Of course, refusing military service is also a crime, punishable by imprisonment.
Ms. Laber says that the purpose of the study is not merely to catalog such Soviet human rights abuses, but to press for an end to them.
US delegates to the Vienna review conference should, she writes, ``raise the cases of individuals who are victims of human rights abuse and ... discuss the structural violations of human rights that have made their persecution possible.''