If all the Soviet citizens who wanted to emigrate were allowed to do so, how many would that be? One million? Thirty million? The Western world is about to find out. A law liberalizing migration passed first reading in the Soviet parliament and could receive final approval after Feb. 18.
Soviet officials promise a six-month delay between passage and implementation of the reform to allow for issuance of passports and the like. Prospective host nations will need all that time and more. Some are close to panic.
Poland and Hungary, losing their own citizens as economic refugees to Western Europe, fear a deluge of Russians. Western countries that encouraged political asylum now doubt the concept is valid. The millions of North African and Turkish immigrants and workers in Europe fear being pushed out by workers who will accept wages just as low, and who are European.
Soviet officials say that a million people have left in three years. Most are Jews, or Armenians or ethnic Greeks or Germans. But a new ethnic group promises to hit in much larger numbers: Russians.
There are different ways to estimate the demand, all inexact. The official Soviet view is that sociological studies have shown that five million Soviet citizens are unhappy and that from 1.5 to 2 million would actually leave. An unofficial view is that 26 million Russians live, in growing anxiety, as minorities in the 14 non-Russian Soviet republics, and may become candidates to move.
Delegates of 34 nations just considered these issues for two days in Vienna. They did more to clarify the problem than to solve it. Western Europe's lure to East Europeans is akin to the problems of Mediterranean immigration there, and Mexican immigration in the United States.
The motives are economic. The lures are material. The reality may be bitter disappointment. Soviet officials are fully aware of the irony that Western nations demanding Moscow lift the Iron Curtain may now slam their own doors. At least the new Soviet law will make emigration not a defection. People who leave would be free to return. This opens the door for temporary work, training, remittances home and other safety valves.
It is also no secret that a healthy economy keeps people home. So the threat of massive emigration becomes blackmail for imports of goods and exports of investment capital as substitutes. All nations have a stake in Soviet and Eastern European reforms working. But handling the immigrants puts new strains on the political integration of the European Community. Western Europe's tradition of liberal welcome and the ideology of One Europe will be sore tested.