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Moscow slams door on Armenians wishing to emigrate

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It used to be said here that the best way for a Soviet Jew to get out of the country might be to turn into a Soviet Armenian, and then join a cousin in Los Angeles.

Nor more.

Soviet authorities have virtually cut off visa applications from Armenians. The growing stream of Soviet Armenian emigrants to the united States, reaching more than 6,000 last year, has been forcibly slowed to a trickle.

Paralleling a crackdown on Jewish emigration that has received relatively wide publicity abroad, the move against the Armenians has so far gone all but unnoticed.

Yet the effects are visible.The US consulate here, not many months ago apt to be jamned with Armenians applying for permission to go to America, is nearly empty nowasays. Its US support staff has been reduced. There are too many Soviet employees for the sharply cut work load. "We are keeping the local staff on," says one embassy source, "just to be prepared in case the Soviets loosen the new restrictions" on Armenian emigration.

Foreign diplomats say they have no idea when, or whether, that will happen. They were told at the time of the crackdown that it was due to "technical reasons," presumably meaning the Soviets wanted to clear up a backlog of visa applicants. But the tightened visa guidelines have remained in force even after the rate of Armenians leaving the USSR has slowed sharply.

One wide assumption is that Armenian would-be emigrants -- indeed, Jewish or other would-be emigrants -- have become hostages to superpower tension. The assumed corollary: When and if relations between moscow and Washington warm again, emigration may get easier.

Jewish emigration peaked in 1979, the year that Brezhnev and Carter signed the SALT II pact. IT began falling off late that year, plummeting further after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The number of Jews now leaving the USSR is about one-tenth the 1979 monthly average.

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