SOVIET legislators came within an inch, then just couldn't quite do it. After glowing words about putting their citizens on an equal footing with those of other nations by allowing free travel and immigration, they sent back to committee a bill that would have accomplished that reform. It will likely languish there for a few months before being reconsidered. Why the hesitancy to do something that would be hailed as a hallmark of Soviet liberalization, and that could open the way for better trade relations with the United States?
The lawmakers talked about the huge expense - $20 billion by official estimate - of printing new passports and beefing up customs agencies.
That's hard to swallow, since most countries make a tidy profit from issuing passports. And if money was the issue, consider the hard currency that would flow back to the motherland from Soviet citizens who got work abroad.
But the reluctant legislators - many of whom occupy seats reserved for the Communist Party - didn't see it that way. Their dominant concern, bolstered by jeremiads from conservative colleagues, is probably the dreaded "brain drain." Even without a new law formalizing the right of movement, large numbers of intellectuals and scientists have already answered the siren call of the West.
KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov has alluded to the threat - which, of course, he sees as but one facet of a sinister Western plot to weaken the Soviet Union.
In fact, the Soviet people, starved for opportunity, will seize the freedom to travel or move elsewhere. And the coming and going will inevitably bring a fermentation of ideas that will hasten the de-communization of Soviet life.
That's a lot more important to the party types in parliament than most-favored-nation status with the US. The Soviet Union, after all, doesn't have many manufactured goods to sell in the West, so more open trade is of limited value. But the ability to maintain some semblance of control over people's lives - that's something those bred to Leninism can readily appreciate.