AT HELSINKI in 1975 the Russians, to win Western acceptance of their wartime conquests, agreed to limber up a bit the flow of people and information in and out of the Soviet Union. They did not endorse the guiding Western concept that detente requires just such a broadening, confidence-building flow. but they did accept certain obligations, among others, on reuniting divided families, allowing publications to cross the border more easily, and so on. They also accepted an obligation to meet two years later with the 34 other "European" nations, including the United States, to see how they all were honoring their Helsinki words. That review conference is nearing conclusion in Belgrade now. It's gotten so tedious and tendentious, along familiar East-West lines, that few people are paying attention, but an important point is involved.

The point is that the Russians and some of their bloc partners have welched. They have not kept their Helsinki pledges in a manner matching the solemnity in which they were given. They have, moreover, persecuted the handful of their own citizens who have tried to persuade their governments to honor those pledges. It is not -- keep in mind -- as though the United States had ordered the Soviet Union to adopt the Bill of Rights. If the Soviet Union were to do everything in the Helsinki document, it would still be a police state. But it would be a slightly more civilized place for a few people, and that, together with the specter of unraveling that it presents to small minds, is why the Kremlin squirms.

The Russians have another story. They say the conference has stalemated because the administration and in particular its Belgrade representative, Arthur Goldberg, have been too pushy. We are in no position, and of no mind, to say that American tactics have been beyond reproof. But the Russians' implication -- that but for the United States they would be delivering like diligent schoolboys -- is absurd. One can argue whether big international conferences, with their attendant politics and propaganda, are the best forum in which to handle matters involving, ultimately, sensitive internal political controls. One cannot argue that Moscow did not go to Belgrade realizing that it would be called on to meet minimal standards of respect for people and ideas -- standards it had formally accepted for itself.

Washington wanted the conference to end with a substantive document reporting on how well conferees had done since Helsinki. Moscow refused, and advanced a draft more appropriate to a Pravda editorial. What's likely now is simply agreement that there be another "review" conference in Madrid two years hence. Considering everything, that's okay. The Russians' feet have been held to a fire kindled not just by the United States, whose purposes the Russians are always inclined to discredit, but also by several dozen other Western nations whose favor Moscow prizes and whose motives it finds less easy to challenge.

There was not a Belgrade -- and could not have been -- meaningful progress on particular cases. But the idea was confirmed that the Helsinki signatories are accountable to each other for the way they treat their citizens. The idea is worthy enough for Americans to put up with heavy frustration in pursuing it.