On July 13, the Senate by unanimous consent passed a bill cosponsored by 71 of its members to give the status of permanent resident of the United States to the seven Pentecostalists from Chernogorsk, Siberia, with effect from June 27, 1978, when they entered the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The bill, HR 2873, now awaits action in the House.
The Reagan administration opposes the legislation. On Oct. 2, 1979, in one of his radio commentaries on current affairs, Ronald Reagan said: "D,etente is supposed to be a two-way street. Our wheat and technology can get into Russia--why can't the Vashchenko and Chmykhalov families get out?" But the State Department continues to follow the Carter policy--expressing sympathy, but taking no action to help the Vashchenkos and Chmykhalovs.
The administration objects that HR 2873 would create a risky precedent: it would "reward" persons who enter American diplomatic premises by giving them the status of permanent resident of the United States and would consequently encourage Soviet citizens who want to get out of the U.S.S.R. to "flood" the embassy.
In written replies to Americans who have inquired about the Vashchenkos and Chmykhalovs, officials of the State Department have explained that the U.S. government "neither recognizes nor practices the granting of political asylum within our diplomatic or consular premises." "However," such letters go on, "we do recognize the humanitarian obligation to provide temporary refuge in an embassy or consulate to persons in physical danger. Anyone granted such refuge . . . must leave the premises as soon as circumstances permit."
By allowing the Pentecostals to live in the embassy, two successive administrations have recognized that circumstances do not permit the Vashchenkos and Chmykhalovs to leave without risking physical danger. And there is no prospect of a change in those circumstances.
At the same time, the State Department constantly repeats that the "ultimate responsibility for the resolution of the plight of these brave individuals lies squarely with the Soviet government."
So the superpowers have created a Catch-22 around the Vashchenkos and Chmykhalovs. The Soviets say they can apply for passports only from Chernogorsk, where for 16 years--from 1962 to 1978--they strove in vain to do just that. For its part, the American government recognizes that it must grant them refuge, but disclaims any further responsibility.
Earlier this year, alarmed by the hunger strike upon which Augustina Vashchenko and her daughter, Lydia, had embarked, Reagan wrote and asked Leonid Brezhnev to let the families leave the U.S.S.R. The only publicly known response is a mocking Tass commentary of Feb. 15, calling the president's concern "absurd" and "unsavory."
According to present plans, construction of the new embassy building in Moscow should be completed in 1984. What will then become of the U.S. government's policy of "continu$ to allow the Pentecostals to live in the embassy"? After all, they will then have to leave the old building and the protection of the American government in order to get to the new one. The State Department acknowledges the problem, but can say only that it has "every hope of resolving this situation well before then."
Is it not time to recognize the moral responsibility the U.S. government has assumed for these people through granting them refuge in the embassy for more than four years, and to stop opposing the only possible relief now available for them?
The legislation before Congress will not secure Soviet passports and exit visas for the Vashchenkos and Chmykhalovs. That can be done only by convincing the Soviet authorities that they lose more by not issuing them than they gain by perpetuating the present stalemate. Permanas progrent resident status as of June 27, 1978, would raise the possibility that the Vashchenkos and Chmykhalovs could acquire American citizenship before the old embassy building reverts to Soviet control. Would the Soviets want to see that happen or, in the face of it, would they prefer to cut their losses and let the Vashchenkos and Chymkhalovs go?
There is only one way to find out: by passing HR 2873.