SOVIET citizens haven't exactly been locked inside their country over the past several years, as they were at the height of the nation's Stalinist period. Jews, Armenians, and people of German descent have enjoyed almost unhindered rights to emigrate of late, and for many other Soviets foreign travel has no longer been a perk reserved for party apparatchiks and ballet troupes. But with laws strictly controlling freedom of movement still on the books, the rights to travel or emigrate have been exercisable only at the discretion of the government, and thus have been subject to political manipulation. Travel has been a privilege doled out by the Kremlin.
The Soviet parliament took a laudable step this week when it finally passed a law that will allow Soviet people wide freedom to travel and emigrate. Unfortunately, the law won't be fully effective until 1993. But the lawmakers mandated prompt preparatory actions that make backsliding unlikely.
The law may not reflect advancing liberalism in the USSR so much as economic desperation. The lawmakers - and President Gorbachev, in throwing his influence behind the bill after much hesitation - were motivated in great part by a desire to win further economic aid and trade benefits from the West. Whatever the motives, however, the emigration law is another major step out of the Soviet Union's long totalitarian night.
Unless unacceptable provisions lurk in the bill's fine print, the United States should grant the most-favored-nation trade benefits Moscow hungers for. (It's perverse that the USSR, with its progress, is denied US trade benefits enjoyed by China, where Tiananmen protesters are still hunted down.)
Gorbachev's resistance to the new law stemmed largely from very real concerns about a "brain drain" if the Soviet Union's best scientists and engineers are permitted to seek their fortunes abroad. But the solution is to make the Soviet Union more prosperous and livable, not to imprison people in an economic gulag.