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Analysis From Washington -- Toward a New Visa War?

Washington, July 3 (RFE/RL) -- Combined with Russian Security Council chief Aleksandr Lebed's threats to tighten the country's visa regime, Moscow's denial of visas this week to an American Jewish activist and earlier to several Baltic parliamentarians raises the spectre of a new Russian visa war against the West.

No one disputes that Russia like every other country has the right to control who is allowed to enter its territory. But when the Russian government exploits this right in order to exclude individuals whose activism in the cause of human rights Moscow disapproves of, that sends a chilling message to Russians about what their government will tolerate and to the West about the nature of the Russian regime.

Both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union routinely deployed this power to control their own populations and to send signals about what Moscow approved or disapproved of. Indeed, at a certain point, some human rights activists in the West took pride in having been denied a visa by the Soviets.

Since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., however, the Russian government generally has had a good record on issuing visas. There have been occasional problems but no consistent discrimination that might have led to protests.

The denial of the visa to David Harris, the director of the American Jewish Congress, may indeed be simply the result of a bureaucratic mistake. That is the interpretation the U.S. State Department has put on it. But there are several reasons to think that more may be involved -- as is certainly the case with the denial of visas to several Baltic parliamentarians.

First of all, Boris Yeltsin may be taking these steps now precisely to burnish his nationalist credentials with Lebed's supporters in order to win their votes in the second round of the presidential voting. Lebed's own remarks this week about the need for the tightening of the country's visa regime lend weight to this interpretation.

Second, at least some in the Russian government may have taken these steps precisely now out of the near certainty that most Western governments would be loathe to criticize Yeltsin or his government right before the vote. And by taking these steps without drawing a protest, the Russian government would thus have a precedent for future actions.

And third, as the Russian press makes clear, there are unfortunately all too many people in Russia and in the Russian government who clearly would like to exclude individuals and groups that Moscow believes are pursuing anti-Russian aims.

Russian diplomats and journalists often have suggested that Baltic parliamentarians should be punished for their open support of the Chechen drive for independence. And Russian officials, having taken steps to close the Jewish Agency in Moscow, certainly could be expected to see the exclusion of a Jewish American activist as the logical next step.

Whatever the facts of the case, whether these latest denials are simple snafus or a policy shift, they are likely to be lost in the media noise about the Russian election over the next several days.

But because visa denials are something virtually all political leaders understand, that situation will not last. The American government has already quietly protested the decision on Harris and the Council of Europe has heard a protest from the parliamentarians involved.

Such complaints will only escalate if Moscow really is changing its position on that. And consequently, these decisions on visas are likely to affect the fate of far more people than only those who are not allowed to get into Russia.