THIS holiday season will be a lot happier for Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner. Instead of internal exile and KGB harassment in Gorky, they are permitted to return to Moscow, where Dr. Sakharov will resume scientific work.
There is understandable elation in many lands about the return to more normal living conditions of the Sakharovs. But it is an ironic commentary on the Soviet system that this elation comes because the Sakharovs have been pardoned for a crime that would be no crime in a free society.
All they did was criticize certain aspects of Soviet policy and behavior. For that they have endured long years of exile, restriction, uncertainty, surveillance, and harassment. The world's joy at the ending of their punishment should be laced with anger that it was ever imposed in the first place.
Timed shrewdly on the eve of Christmas, it is another example of Mikhail Gorbachev's clever public relations flair. Mr. Gorbachev called Dr. Sakharov himself in Gorky to give him the news. Of course, Soviet officials had to install a telephone just for this purpose in the Sakharovs' apartment; they had not been permitted one during exile.
Does it mean that the Soviets are really bringing some moderation to their internal human rights policy? Or does it mean that a few prominent dissidents are getting better treatment to improve Moscow's international image? And is this a signal to the limping Reagan administration that Mr. Gorbachev still wants to do business with it?
The answer to the latter question is almost certainly yes.
Throughout the Reagan administration's Iran debacle, the Soviets have been relatively restrained. Signals have been sent that they want to get on with an arms control agreement. Sen. Gary Hart was told as much by Mr. Gorbachev during his recent visit to Moscow. The Soviets apparently calculate that dealing with the devil they know (Ronald Reagan) will pay off better than waiting for a new one to assume the presidency and start all over again on the US-Soviet relationship.