MOSCOW -- According to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Cold War is over. His policies of glasnost, or openness, and "new thinking" about the outside world are now in their sixth year. But through an anachronism of history that it is high time to rectify, American journalists in the Soviet Union are still treated in some ways like the representatives of an enemy power.
In order to travel outside the Moscow region, Western journalists must notify the Soviet foreign ministry 48 hours in advance. Permission can be refused for the flimsiest of reasons. This year alone, Washington Post correspondents have been barred at different times from traveling to theoretically "open" cities in Lithuania, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Soviet Central Asia. Roughly one-third of the country, including many large industrial cities, is permanently closed to Western correspondents.
Thanks to glasnost, working conditions for Western correspondents in the Soviet Union have improved considerably over the past few years, opening up a wide range of previously inaccessible sources. It is therefore all the more irksome to have to expend vast amounts of nervous energy battling with the vestiges of a totalitarian system that was designed to make information-gathering as difficult as possible. A small army of bureaucrats, KGB agents and policemen is still employed to enforce regulations that were introduced at the height of the Cold War.
Paradoxically, the more a journalist tries to take advantage of the new opportunities, the more he is reminded of the limits of glasnost. I have spent much of the past two weeks attempting to visit cities that have been declared "open" by the local authorities, but in fact remain closed. The only rewards for my efforts have been insights into the gap between the theory of perestroika and the practice -- a gap that helps explain why Gorbachev is much more popular abroad than at home.
My first would-be destination was Kaliningrad, the former East Prussian city of Konigsberg. An important naval base on the Baltic sea, Kaliningrad has been out of bounds to Westerners ever since it was annexed from Germany after World War II. But last month the new city council declared Kaliningrad an "open city" as part of a plan to turn the region into a free trade zone. A delegation of German bankers arrived to assess the economic potential of the burial place of Emmanuel Kant. A Soviet-American youth orchestra was invited to Kaliningrad in a touching display of musical glasnost. Soviet cultural officials assured journalists that they could cover the event on the spot.
Just how open Kaliningrad is, I discovered when I tried to attend the concert. After much bureaucratic rigamarole, the Soviet foreign ministry told me that the city was still effectively out of bounds. In order to go there, I would need permission not only from the city council but also from the regional authorities. And the regional authorities were strongly objecting to my proposed visit.
For my next glasnost adventure, I chose Sverdlovsk, an important industrial city in the Ural mountains that also happens to be the political base of Boris Yeltsin, Russia's newly elected president. Journalistic intuition tells me that places such as Sverdlovsk are likely to be key battlegrounds for the future of perestroika. Apparently Gorbachev thinks so too. When he wanted to sell his economic reform program to the increasingly sullen work force earlier this year, he flew to the Urals.
Forewarned by the Kaliningrad experience, I took care to procure an invitation to Sverdlovsk not merely from the city authorities but also from the regional council. I also cleared the trip with Yeltsin's aides. But then the foreign ministry -- which keeps assuring me that it is on my side -- came up with Catch 22-ski. This particular visit would also need to be cleared by the Soviet government, the agency that closed Sverdlovsk in the first place.
Battling the bureaucracy here is a little like ramming your head into a brick wall: you usually do more damage to yourself than to the wall. Unfortunately, the anti-glasnost forces in the Soviet Union have the perfect excuse to prevent us from traveling freely. If we complain, they point out that Soviet journalists in the United States are bound by similar restrictions.
There seems to be an unholy alliance between the Soviet and American bureaucracies to hold up real progress on implementing international commitments on freedom of information. The U.S. side has come up with a maximalist proposal to open up the entire territory of both superpowers to free travel by journalists and diplomats. This sounds eminently reasonable, but it is being used as a way of avoiding incremental improvements. Negotiations on relaxing travel restrictions seem to have gotten bogged down in futile arguments over who should take the first step.
In order to break this vicious cycle, I should like to make a modest proposal that would deprive Moscow of the excuse for doing nothing. The U.S. administration should relax travel restrictions on accredited Soviet journalists for a trial period of, say, six months. If the Kremlin responds, well and good. If it responds only partially, or does not respond at all, then reciprocal restrictions can be reimposed. At the same time, it should also be made clear to Gorbachev that there can be no question of Western economic assistance to the Soviet Union as long as independent observers are unable to see for themselves how the aid is to be used.
The writer is a Moscow correspondent for The Post.