Soviets pass law letting citizens leave Fear of emigration delays new rules' effect until 1993

May 21, 1991|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- The Soviet parliament voted yesterday to grant nearly all citizens the legal right to emigrate and travel abroad, but it postponed implementation of the new rules until Jan. 1, 1993, because of fears of a flood of emigrants.

Fyodor M. Burlatsky, an editor who had fought for the bill for nearly two years, hailed it as a giant step away from the centuries-old Russian suspicion of the outside world.

"We have always feared strangers," said Mr. Burlatsky, chairman of an official Soviet human rights monitoring committee. "Passage of this law is a historic act, an act of Russian history and not only an act in the fight against [Soviet] totalitarianism."

But many people resented the long delay in passage of the law, first promised in 1988, and in its date of implementation.

"In 1993, we'll get the right of exit from and entry to our own country -- just like the citizens of all other civilized countries," said Yuri Rostov, anchorman for Russian television news, with a hint of sarcasm.

The White House praised the bill's passage, but spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said it was too early to say whether it would be sufficient to justify granting the Soviet Union most-favored-nation trade status.

The 320-37 vote, with 32 abstentions, kept a long-standing pledge to the Soviet people, who have been granted unprecedented travel opportunities over the past three years but had no legal guarantees that the exit rights would be preserved.

The new law will permit anyone to go abroad to any foreign country that will grant him an entry visa, unless the would-be traveler has alimony obligations, unfulfilled military obligations, pending criminal charges or recent knowledge of state secrets.

Such factors as alimony and knowledge of secrets have been used arbitrarily to ban emigration in the past, but the new law sets clearer limits on such restrictions and wider rights of appeal to those turned down.

Mr. Burlatsky predicted that up to 500,000 people a year would emigrate after the law takes effect, with more than 5 million annually traveling abroad to work, on private visits or as tourists.

Even without the law, the major block to travel already is the difficulty of obtaining entry visas from other nations rather than permission from the Soviet government to go abroad.

More than 2 1/2 years ago, in a triumphant speech at the United Nations, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev promised a new law that would "eliminate the problem of the so-called refuseniks," Soviet citizens refused permission to leave.

The refuseniks were mostly Soviet Jews who were prevented from leaving for Israel, generally because it was claimed that they had knowledge of state secrets. The emigration battle since the 1960s focused on Jews because they were the only group to which Soviet authorities granted even a limited right to emigrate.

The emigration law was drafted shortly after the first contested election of the Soviet parliament two years ago. Soviet officials signed a number of international agreements obligating the country to permit free emigration.

Travel restrictions were steadily lifted, and unprecedented numbers of Soviet citizens left for other countries as tourists as well as emigrants. But the conservative bureaucracy managed repeatedly to delay passage of the emigration bill despite the link to the lifting of trade restrictions with the United States.

Fear of contaminating contact with the West long predates the Russian Revolution, and Peter the Great's own forays west and his forcible opening of Russia to foreign influence in the 17th century have been hotly debated ever since.

Under Josef V. Stalin, the history of suspicion toward the foreigner was raised to a pathology, and tens of thousands of innocent people went to labor camps or to their deaths for fleeting contact with foreigners. Well into the 1980s, the few privileged Soviet citizens allowed to travel abroad were accompanied by chaperones from the KGB.

In the recent parliamentary debate over the bill, the debate had largely shifted from the ideological dangers of emigration and travel to their practical consequences.

Already, many of the Soviet Union's most enterprising scientists, artists and entrepreneurs are seeking their fortunes in Israel, Germany or the United States.

Deputies questioned the cost to the bankrupt Soviet Union of coping with expanded border traffic, greater air and rail travel and even printing

enough passports to offer them on demand.

Some queried whether such attention and resources should be spent on an elite group considering travel or emigration.

But the advocates carried the day, arguing that the law is a necessity for any free country, not subject to limitation on practical grounds.

The vote happened to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the birth of Andrei D. Sakharov, the human rights advocate who had urged open borders for many years before his death in 1989.

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