With all the spectacular progress in the area of arms control, the United States and the Soviet Union are leading the dialogue of the deaf when it comes to freedom of emigration.

Both sides are deeply suspicious of each other's motivation. The Americans come to the negotiating table firmly believing that human rights are principally impossible in Russia; the best they could get is a one-time deal, a trade of so many Soviet Jews for Western cash or credit. The Soviets view the Western obsession with emigration as a ploy to undermine domestic political stability and cause economic trouble. Nevertheless, substantial progress in this field is possible if both sides put ideological preconceptions aside and try to understand each other in terms of real politics.

The current impasse was well illustrated by the recent television debate between the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Soviet. The Americans insisted that 600,000 people want to leave, while the Soviets claimed that they have only about 600 applications on hand. The emphasis on statistics leads the debate away from the real issue -- the guaranteed right of every Soviet citizen, Jew and non-Jew, to leave and return as he pleases, a right that does not exist in the Soviet Union today.

With regard to statistics, ironically, both sides may be right. Until recently, the Soviet policy was to deter the would-be visa applicants by mistreating a handful of well-known refuseniks whose emigration requests have been denied for years, in some cases decades. Now that the refuseniks are finally leaving, those who rushed to apply for emigration have been confronted by the new eligibility rule, which allows emigration or private travel only on invitation from close kin abroad. This effectively cuts off most of those who would like to leave the country.

Why are the Soviets so intransigent on this particular issue while they are yielding in other fields, such as press censorship and jailed dissidents, almost without Western pressure? Until glasnost, Soviet rationale against emigration was primarily ideological; they could not admit that anyone would prefer the capitalist "jungle" to the socialist "paradise." Such argument is no longer valid. Today Soviet newspapers publish far more embarrassing information about the disastrous state of the Soviet economy, its health care and its legal system.

Massive emigration, however, has political and economic implications that would concern any nation, including those where the human rights aspect of the problem is satisfactorily resolved. The reason why the Soviets would not allow free emigration today could be simply the fear of loosing the people they value.

The standard of living in the Soviet Union, by its own admission, is very low. The moment the border opens, too many people, especially the educated elite, would rush out. Most of them would not be fleeing persecution, but would simply be seeking a better life. For the same reason, the Soviet government might be reluctant to permit large-scale private visits, student exchanges, sightseeing tours and all other elements of free flow of people and ideas across national borders that were anticipated by the Helsinki accord. They fear not ideological subversion but mass defections.

With respect to containing brain drain, the Soviet Union is in a much worse position than Israel, India or Italy. Although the citizens of these countries have a guaranteed right of free emigration, they cannot move to the United States unless they marry an American or are sponsored by a U.S. employer. In contrast, anybody who manages to get out of the Soviet Union is guaranteed prompt admission to the United States as a political refugee outside usual immigration quotas.

Such a policy of the United States was totally justified in the pre-glasnost period when human rights in Russia did not exist. Before Mikhail Gorbachev began his reforms, any form of political disagreement or meaningful religious activity led to an automatic jail term. Applicants for an exit visa faced job dismissals, expulsion from universities, illegal draft into the army. The desire to leave the country, by Soviet standards, was an act of political disagreement, so in American eyes every emigrant was a political refugee.

Under glasnost, the human rights situation in Russia has begun to change. Visa applicants (those few who are eligible) are treated reasonably well. More than a half of the political prisoners have been pardoned. In a recent statement, Vadim Zagladin, a Central Committee official, said that the criminal statute, Article 190, prohibiting defaming the state will be abolished. Article 70, which deals with "anti-Soviet agitation," will be interpreted in a narrow sense, prohibiting direct calls to overthrow the government.

If the Soviets deliver on Zagladin's promise and release all remaining political prisoners and legally rehabilitate them, if they guarantee the right to criticize the government and permit the expression of alternative political views (which they have cautiously started to do) and if they stop jailing people for religious activities, there will be no reason for the United States to grant refugee status to every Russian without looking into the reasons for such requests. If all these conditions are met by the next Reagan-Gorbachev summit, the negotiating position of the United States on Soviet emigration should be as follows.

The Soviets should guarantee the unconditional right of every citizen to leave the country, permanently or temporarily. In response, the Americans should promise not to grant refugee status to Soviet applicants as long as Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch report no political prisoners and are satisfied with the degree of freedom of expression. Under this proposal, political asylum for Soviet visitors to the United States would be decided on the merits of each case individually.

Such a formula would promote liberty in the Soviet Union, stimulate visits and tourism and leave a window for unrestricted ethnic emigration, such as Soviet Jews to Israel or Soviet Germans to West Germany.

Some time ago, Yitzhak Shamir, prime minister of Israel, asked the Americans to close the United States for Soviet Jews so that all Soviet Jews would be forced to go to Israel. Many activists in the Soviet Jewry movement, including myself, considered this position politically counterproductive and morally repulsive. As long as the Soviet Union suppresses basic freedoms, any emigrant should be considered a refugee from tyranny and granted asylum. However, the proposal of Shamir would seem a reasonable and honorable idea if it were linked with the state of human rights in the Soviet Union.

The writer, a dissident who left the Soviet Union in 1975, is an assistant professor of microbiology at Columbia University.