The Soviet Union's release of 43 dissidents provides the first indication that a long-rumored amnesty of political prisoners may be under way. The releases, announced this past weekend, come only 10 days after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev called for democratization of the Communist Party. They appear designed to reinforce Moscow's image of change and dynamism - an image it is trying to communicate both to its own people and to the outside world.
Forty two of the dissidents were released last week, Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner, told journalists Saturday. One more was released Sunday. All carried official documents saying their release was in accordance with a decree passed by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (parliament) Feb. 2. The decree has not been published, but it has recently been rumored among diplomats here that Moscow will soon announce an amnesty of political prisoners.
At least three prominent dissidents - Anatoly Shcharansky, Yuri Orlov, and Irina Ratushinskaya - were allowed to leave the country last year. The starting point for Mr. Gorbachev's new human rights strategy, however, seems to date from just before last Christmas, when the Sakharovs were allowed to return to Moscow from internal exile in the city of Gorky.
Mr. Sakharov's release was said to be a gesture to the outside world and to the Soviet people. The latest releases seem to be an extension of that gesture. Communist Party officials and prominent intellectuals interpreted Sakharov's release as a signal by Gorbachev that the leadership's talk of liberalization was not mere rhetoric. His release was intended to improve Moscow's credibility in the West on arms control and trade issues.
The latest releases coincide with rumors that another Soviet disarmament proposal is imminent. They follow the recent publication of a new law on joint ventures, designed to encourage Western investment in the Soviet Union. And, they come at a time when Washington still seems stymied by internal problems.
Domestically, an amnesty would drive home to the Communist Party rank and file the message that the leadership is serious about political change.
The question of dissidents is a regular topic of discussion in party meetings, a party official said recently. Rank-and-file communists nearly always wanted tougher moves against dissidents, he added.
Persuading the party of the inevitability of change is crucial. In Gorbachev's plans for change anonymous party bureaucrats can make or break the reforms.
A sweeping release of prisoners might also reassure Soviets that the leadership's call for debate and criticism, which Gorbachev and his backers see as vital for fast economic development, are genuine.
This message is particularly directed at the country's intellectual elite. So far Gorbachev has successfully cultivated the support of the intelligentsia, which had largely withdrawn from politics under his predecessors. A large-scale prisoner release would further increase his stock among them.
The dissidents' release coincides with some easing of tight emigration restrictions. A Foreign Ministry spokesman recently said that 500 exit permits had been issued in January. But there seems so far to have been no improvement in the situation of the handful of Soviet citizens denied permission to leave to live with their foreign spouses. And the whereabouts of prominent dissident Anatoly Koryagin remain unclear.