MOSCOW, JAN. 27 -- An unprecedented meeting between official Soviet and western human rights monitoring groups nearly broke down today when a former Soviet political prisoner, now a human rights activist here, attempted to speak as a member of the western delegation.
After a 30-minute dispute between members of the visiting International Helsinki Federation and the Soviet human rights coalition, the activist, Lev Timofeyev, was allowed to address the meeting.
Timofeyev, pardoned from a two-year prison term a year ago, used his appearance to call for the release of 200 political prisoners in the Soviet Union. An economist by training, Timofeyev was tried and jailed in 1985 for anti-Soviet activities after he published articles abroad that were harshly critical of the Soviet economy.
"We feel that priority should be given to gaining a common concept of certain well-known words, such as freedom, rights and love, which at present have widely differing interpretations," Timofeyev also said.
Timofeyev is head of Press Club Glasnost, an unofficial human rights advocacy group composed of Soviet citizens. The organization, founded several months ago with the easing of official controls on such groups, became part of the International Helsinki Federation this week.
Fyodor Burlatsky, who heads the official Soviet Human Rights Commission and chaired today's session, originally objected to Timofeyev's appearance at the meeting, saying that the official Soviet delegates were not familiar with him or his organization. "We do not consider this the appropriate time or place to get acquainted with the Press Club Glasnost," Burlatsky said.
Today's meeting illustrates how even in times of glasnost, or openness, sparks fly whenever Soviet officials face off against their western counterparts on the issue of human rights.
In this case, the difference was over whether Soviet officials like the members of the human rights commission recognize unofficial Soviet human rights activists and their positions.
The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation, composed of representatives from 13 countries, including the United States, is charged with coordinating the work of various groups monitoring adherence to the 1975 Helsinki human rights accords. The federation has been held in disfavor by Kremlin officials, and several of its representatives have been barred from entering the Soviet Union in recent years.
The unprecedented invitation to the Helsinki federation to visit Moscow, the latest in a series of overtures the Kremlin has made to western human rights activists, is viewed here as part of a Soviet bid to host an international human rights conference in Moscow.
If today's meeting was a trial run of the conference, however, Soviet and western human rights monitors seem to disagree about the purposes such a conference would serve.
Many Soviet officials oppose the participation of unofficial Soviet groups in discussions about Soviet human rights, for instance, while western organizations favor their input. Although about 50 Soviet dissidents attended today's meeting, including members of the banned Hare Krishna movement, they were asked by Soviet officials to observe and not to take part.
"It's a question of power," Timofeyev said in an interview tonight. "In all areas of Soviet life, including human rights, one group has a monopoly. They are loath to give up that monopoly."
Andrei Sakharov, a physicist who is one of the founders of the Soviet human rights movement, proposed at a dinner here tonight that the International Helsinki Federation pose two preconditions for holding a human rights conference in Moscow. Sakharov said that it should demand an end to the eight-year-old Afghanistan war and the release of all prisoners of conscience from Soviet jails.