Soviet emigration authorities have given Moscow residents higher priority for exit visas recently, a shift that has prompted both hope and skepticism among would-be emigrants from the Soviet Union.
The skepticism comes from the fact that while the numbers of visas granted in the high-profile capital have risen, they have gone down elsewhere, leaving the total roughly where it was this time last year.
The hope comes from Jews and others here who have seen friends called in to update their papers and, in some cases, actually handed long-awaited visas.
Among those who already have gone are some of Moscow's better-known "refusedniks," those who were refused exit visas during the last years' clampdown on emigration.
These departures, and the reverberations they have caused in both the refusednik and foreign communities here have been amplified by reports from abroad that the Soviets are opening the emigration valves again after drastically cutting back the flow in recent years.
So far, no big surge in overall numbers has taken place, and reports that one is pending cannot be confirmed here. According to figures from the intergovernmental Committee on Migration in Geneva, 247 Soviet Jews arrived in Vienna during the first three months of this year, 18 more than during the same period last year. Western diplomats say that as many as 80 percent of this year's exit visas for Jews have gone to Moscow residents.
Among older refusedniks, there is concern that the recent flurry of visas from Moscow is an aberration -- either produced for public-relations effect or because of internal administrative problems at the Soviet visa and registration office. "Nobody knows exactly what it is going on," said a Soviet citizen who has been waiting for a visa since 1975.
"We all have always been mailbox crazy and telephone crazy," said Inna Kitrusskaya, 52. "Maybe more so now, because everybody is excited. In some ways we hope, but in some ways we have lost hope."
The tension has increased because of the apparent randomness of the visas granted so far. For instance, Kitrusskaya, who faces an urgent medical problem that Soviet doctors can only treat with repeated and painful operations, has received no response to numerous appeals on her behalf from around the world. She first applied to emigrate in 1979. Her husband, Nehum Meiman, a former mathematics professor, applied in 1975.
"How they chose people to come in is totally unpredictable," said Meiman, who knows four or five families who already have left.
Without any official explanations, people here can only guess at the reasons for the surge in exit visas from Moscow. Some think it is because the Moscow emigration office will soon stop processing outgoing visas to concentrate on the flood of incoming visas expected for this summer's international youth festival here.
Another theory is that, again because of the youth festival, efforts are being made to move more prominent refusedniks out of the capital to avoid any embarrassing incidents.
But there is also concern that the Soviet Union, by closing a few celebrated cases, hopes to ease criticism of its human rights record at a time when the issue is being taken up at a conference on human rights in Montreal under the auspices of the 1975 Helsinki agreement.
In London Tuesday, chairman Joyce Simpson of the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry said a Soviet official who refused to give his name came out of the embassy to say he would provide a list of Soviet Jews given permission to emigrate. It was the group's first contact with officials since picketing outside the embassy began 14 years ago, United Press International reported. "They promised us a list in 'a few days,' " she said, "but we don't believe there are 280 families in Moscow who've been given permission to go."
Last year's total of 896 emigrant Soviet Jews was the lowest in at least 14 years, according to the Soviet Jewry Research Bureau, while the peak was 51,320 in 1979.
Figures for other groups showed the same trend. Last year, about 100 Armenians left the Soviet Union for the United States; in 1980, the number was 6,109.
So far this year, the number of exit visas granted to ethnic Germans has declined. Whereas the monthly average of emigrants to West Germany last year was about 80, the total this February was 25, climbing slightly to 39 in March, according to figures available here.
Even before the trend from Moscow became apparent, refusedniks had begun to hope again for a new relaxation in emigration. Those hopes were based on glimmerings of an improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations, which have come to be the touchstone of Soviet emigration policy.
The history of the link between emigration and the superpower relationship goes back to 1974, when the U.S. Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment tying improved trade relations with the Soviet Union to loosenig of restraints on emigration.
Since then, exit visas have tracked the relationship's ups and downs, with the recent rapid decrease coming in the wake of U.S. reactions to the invasion of Afghanistan and the imposition of martial law in Poland.
Last winter, when the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to start negotations on arms control in Geneva, expectations rose among refusedniks. They were further heightened by the rise to power of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who some think might be expected to ease emigration as a gesture of good will.
The Soviets have argued in recent years that the slowdown in emigration is due to a decrease in demand. That view is dismissed by refusedniks, who set the number of longstanding applicants in the tens of thousands. However, few dispute that the recent clampdown has discouraged would-be new applicants from taking the risks associated with asking to emigrate.
Last week, an American congressional delegation headed by House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) repeatedly raised emigration and human rights as major obstacles to improved U.S.-Soviet relations and made a point of visiting a number of refusedniks.
According to delegation members, representatives of the Supreme Soviet agreed to set up a joint committee to examine the question.
For refusedniks, the most tangible hope came as several were called in to resubmit their applications in recent months. Among them were Mark Reitman, an activist in an unofficial peace group.
The most recent case was that of Bernard Lamport, who came here from the United States in the 1930s. Although recognized as a U.S. citizen by Washington, he was denied that status by Soviet authorities. He had applied to leave first in 1979. After being invited to reapply, Lamport and his family left Friday.
Abe Stolar, another American who came here in the 1930s and has tried to return since, also has been invited to reapply, but he and other members of his family are waiting for assurances that his son's wife can leave with them.
Other would-be emigrants have been asked to resubmit their papers, including some non-Jews who have been encouraged to seek invitations from Israel. According to Jewish sources, such invitations in every case so far have produced an exit visa.
Some refusedniks fear that the recent activity in the Moscow emigration office will only raise false hopes and encourage people to reapply on their own, without invitations. People applying, or reapplying to leave must get a reference from their place of work, which often costs them their jobs.
During the years of waiting, many refusedniks, having lost their old jobs, have found new ones, often as night watchmen or other low-ranking positions. Some fear that in starting the process again, people will lose these jobs without any guarantee of getting permission to leave.
Raised expectations also have gone hand-in-hand with what many here see as a continuing crackdown on Jewish activists that began last summer with the arrests and subsequent convictions of several Hebrew teachers. Jewish groups say the charges were trumped up.
Another focus of concern recently has been the treatment of Josif Begun, a Jewish activist sentenced in 1983 to seven years in a labor camp on charges of anti-Soviet agitation. Begun's son Boris has just ended a hunger strike begun March 4 to protest a lack of contact with his father, who has not been heard from since November. The family said a telegram they received recently said he had been moved, but it did not say where.