Moscow's demand to host an international human rights conference is holding up new conventional-arms reduction talks in Europe. The Soviets are insisting that Moscow be the site of a major human rights conference to be held in 1991 under the banner of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The current CSCE conference in Vienna cannot be concluded until this issue is resolved. But once the Vienna meeting ends, new conventional-arms talks can begin under the CSCE umbrella. Party to the talks will be the 23 members combined of NATO and the Warsaw Pact.
A number of West European countries, in particular West Germany, are very eager to begin talks on reducing conventional arms. The governments face significant domestic pressure to show arms control progress. And their defense strategists want to begin testing Soviet willingness to reduce the large conventional-arms advantages of the East bloc.
Separate negotiations on the basic mandate of the conventional-arms talks, also going on in Vienna, could be wrapped up quickly, say informed US and European diplomats. Similarly, remaining differences on a final document for the current Vienna talks could be rapidly settled if the Moscow conference issue were resolved.
Indeed, France and Germany are reportedly pushing for a Vienna signing ceremony in November. They seem willing to find a compromise on Moscow's desire to host the human rights meeting, which would follow similar gatherings now slated for Paris (1989) and Copenhagen (1990).
But the US and Britain are putting on the brakes. They argue that Moscow must further improve its human rights record before the CSCE nations approve a conference in the Soviet Union.
``You need a credible human rights record to host such a conference,'' says a ranking US official working on the negotiations. Thus, unless Moscow is willing to drop its demand that the conference be approved now, or unless it makes ``clear dramatic progress'' on human rights, he says, the Vienna talks cannot end.
``People would like to see this all wrapped up in November,'' adds a senior US official, but ``these CSCE conferences have a way of dragging on beyond people's expectations. From our perspective, this will all come together when the Soviets guarantee free and full access to the 1991 conference and improve their human rights performance.... Until they do that, we're willing to take the heat.... We can wait.''
Indeed, the only domestic heat the Reagan administration faces is in favor of being tough on human rights. The congressional CSCE commission, for example, is pressing for full release of the more than 200 political prisoners that the US says are still held in the Soviet Union. It also is calling for resolution of all family reunification cases, a steep increase in emigration, and an end to all jamming of foreign broadcasts before the Vienna meeting is wrapped up.
The Reagan administration is pushing for progress in each of these areas, as well as urging the Soviets to make basic institutional changes guaranteeing human rights.
US officials acknowledge that Moscow's human rights performance has improved. ``The Soviets are clearly thinking of trying to meet our conditions,'' says the senior official. ``It would legitimize their international role on human rights, and a degree of openness fits Gorbachev's plans. But it looks to us like this is a strongly divisive issue inside the Soviet leadership.''
The Reagan administration also realizes that once Moscow is host to the conference, ``it will either do it right, and this will be an advance for human rights, or it will do it wrong and be savaged by the international press,'' says a well-placed US official.
Thus, the administration is carefully guarding its options on exactly how much change in the Soviet Union is enough to win US support for a Moscow conference.
The aim of the CSCE process is to increase mutual cooperation in Europe on security, economic, and human rights issues. The Vienna session began in November 1986. It is the third follow-up conference to the founding 1975 CSCE declaration, signed in Helsinki by the 33 European nations plus the US and Canada. The West has regularly sought a balance between progress on human rights and security issues, while the East bloc has focused on security. The goal of the current talks is to review implementation of the original Helsinki accords and to agree on future steps.