A jump in emigration figures, the sudden announcement that a number of Jewish activists have been given permission to leave, and hints of progress in the cases of some divided spouses all suggest Moscow is trying to improve its human rights image in expectation of a summit. The changes could go some way toward lessening the embarrassing criticism and demonstrations that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev might otherwise meet during a United States summit.
The steps are accompanied by a more aggressive Soviet attitude toward what it considers Western human rights violations - large-scale unemployment and homelessness, coupled with individual cases. This may indicate how Mr. Gorbachev will handle the human rights issue if he visits the US. But the changes also seem designed to reassure Soviet citizens that the leadership is sincere in its readiness to reduce controls over social and political life.
On Monday, several Jewish activists, including Iosef Begun, announced that they had been given permission to emigrate. There have been hints that some of the outstanding cases of divided spouses may be resolved. These are also accompanied by a sharp increase in the numbers of Jewish, German, and Armenian emigrants.
Western officials report that an average of about 800 Soviet Jews are currently arriving in the Austrian capital of Vienna every month. In all of 1986, 945 were allowed to leave, according to the Intergovernmental Committee for Migration.
In addition, 1,614 ethnic Germans were issued exit visas in August - an all-time record, diplomats say. So far, 7,127 Germans have received visas this year, compared with 397 during the first eight months of 1986. Western sources estimate that around 50,000 ethnic Germans may want to leave.
In July, 301 Armenians were given permission to leave. This compares with 569 for the first half of this year. A year ago Armenian emigration was running at about 15 a month, a senior Western diplomat says.
The US Embassy also reports a steady growth in the number of Soviet citizens granted permission to visit the US on private trips. There were approximately 200 applications in one recent week, a senior diplomat said.
So far this year, about 13,000 Soviet citizens had left the country permanently, officials said at a press conference in Moscow last month. How many are still waiting to leave is a subject of wide debate between Western and Soviet sources. Ovir, the official visa office, says that about 1,000 applications are pending. A Western diplomat estimates that about 9,000 to 10,000 Soviet Jews have been refused permission to emigrate in the course of the last 10 years. Jewish activists like Natan Sharansky (formerly Anatoly Shcharansky) claim that some 400,000 Soviet Jews would leave if they could.
Some of those waiting to leave view the positive signs with some caution. After recent US-Soviet consultations, freelance photographer Sergei Petrov was told that his case was under ``active consideration.''
``I don't know what that means - they've been considering my case for seven years,'' Mr. Petrov commented. In the past, he said, officials had given various explanations for rejecting his emigration request. Last year he was told that it ``contradicts the interest of the Soviet state.'' Before that he was told that his emigration was ``undesirable.''
The relaxation in controls has been accompanied by a more critical approach toward human rights in the West. This tendency appears to be particularly connected to Yegor Ligachev, the second-ranking member of the Soviet leadership.
In recent weeks, for example, the Soviet news media have given considerable coverage to the case of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian activist imprisoned in the US for homicide. They have also paid attention to the incident in California last week in which a peace activist, Brian Willson, was injured by a train during a demonstration. Graphic footage of the incident was shown on Vremya, the main Soviet television news program, which claims a viewership of 200 million.
A senior American diplomat says that the US is quite happy to discuss Soviet accusations of human rights violations.
``I think it's encouraging in a way, even though it is connected with a higher level of rhetoric'' directed at the US, the diplomat said.
``In the early '70s when I tried to raise these issues, [Soviet officials] would not accept the lists. If I left a list on the desk, they would return it with a little note - not accepted, returned without reading.''