WORLD

Passports to freedom

Moscow may soon relax its emigration laws

MALCOLM GRAY May 27 1991
WORLD

Passports to freedom

Moscow may soon relax its emigration laws

MALCOLM GRAY May 27 1991

Passports to freedom

WORLD

THE SOVIET UNION

Moscow may soon relax its emigration laws

Every weekday, scores of Soviet citizens gather under the Canadian flag that hangs over Starokonyushenny Pereulok (Old Horsebarn Lane) in central Moscow. Last week, as Soviet legislators debated a longdelayed and controversial bill that would ease exit rules, Valentin Kovalev joined the crowd outside the pre-revolutionary mansion that houses the Canadian Embassy. The 31-yearold refrigerator repairman has a goal that is likely to be shared by many more of his fellow countrymen under a less restrictive exit law: gaining entry into Canada. To that end, Kovalev and three other would-be immigrants spent 24 hours travelling by train from Kishinev, the capital of the southwestern republic of Moldova. But Kovalev bleakly acknowledged that his chances of becoming a Canadian were slim: last year, Ottawa accepted only 2,353 Soviets as immigrants. And he expressed skepticism about the pending Soviet law. Said Kovalev: “It will still be hard getting in—that is up to the Canadians. And there are rumors that those who are leaving will soon have to pay more money to the authorities to get exit visas.” Certainly, the proposed emigration bill has

sparked passionate debate within the Soviet Union. And it has fuelled concern across Europe that millions of disgruntled Soviets might flee their country’s economic and social chaos for a better life in the West. As a result, many European countries have tightened entry requirements for Soviet citizens. In Bonn last week, government officials warned that they would deport any Soviet Jews who came to Germany on tourist visas and then tried to stay permanently.

Soviet opponents of looser travel and emigration laws, including KGB officials, have stalled passage of the bill for 18 months for reasons that range from concern over the added cost of servicing the increased exit applications to charges that more liberal laws will encourage an exodus of highly educated and skilled workers. But Fyodor Burlatsky, the Soviet deputy who is the chief architect of the bill, complains that conservatives are unwilling to grant rights that citizens of other countries now enjoy. Legislative approval, said Burlatsky, “would take this country out of its isolation and onto a broad road of co-operation with all nations.”

Although conservative legislators held up approval of the bill again last week, its proponents predicted imminent passage. The new law would simply formalize a noticeable easing of restrictive emigration policies that has occurred during the past five years under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1986, only 8,000 people managed to emigrate from the Soviet Union. By 1990, that number had soared to 452,000, with Israel and Germany absorbing most of the departees. To be sure, even critics of the bill grudgingly acknowledge that pressure from the West, particularly the United States, has helped remove some barriers to emigration. Last week, in fact, as the arrival in Moscow of Chinese Communist party leader Jiang Zemin signalled a thaw between the two neighboring giants, the proponents of a relaxed travel law pointedly declared it to be one of the significant steps that the Soviet Union, unlike China, is making towards a more open society.

The new law would take effect in July, 1992. Soviet tourists and emigrants with foreign entry visas would be allowed to leave provided that they were not trying to evade criminal charges, had completed their military service and had not had access to state secrets. Some Soviet human rights activists expressed concern that the authorities might abuse those provisions, rendering travel rights meaningless for many. At the same time, however, typical citizens clearly do not share the concern of many Soviet conservatives that easing restrictions will encourage the country’s most talented people to leave. Indeed, a recent poll found that 57 per cent of the 3,000 respondents dismissed the likelihood of a so-called brain drain. Among the factors cited for that conclusion: language barriers, a lag in Soviet worker training, and foreign countries’ immigration quotas.

Despite those obstacles, the number of Soviet would-be emigrants is likely to continue rising. Officials predict that as many as 1.5 million Soviets annually are likely to leave permanently when the new law takes effect. But even the government-controlled daily newspaper Izvestia has expressed doubts about a mass exodus—provided the state fulfils its pledge to shift to a market economy. Declared the paper in a recent commentary: “If the market tears apart the straitjacket of egalitarianism put on us 70 years ago, and if talent is not plundered by a shamelessly high income tax anymore, then there will be no brain drain.”

In any event, refrigerator repairman Kovalev is unlikely to join those Soviet emigrants who have moved to Canada. Canadian immigration requirements still favor highly trained workers who are fluent in English or French. Only one member of Kovalev’s group from Moldova could speak even rudimentary English, and none of them has skills that are in short supply in Canada. After seven decades, Soviets may soon find it easier to leave their homeland. But finding another country willing to take them may prove to be more difficult.

MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow