One of the last vestiges of the Cold War was abolished Friday when the United States and Russia lifted travel restrictions for journalists and business people working in each other's countries.
"Effective immediately, all travel controls on Russian journalists and commercial representatives in the United States and all American journalists and businessmen in Russia are lifted," Robert S. Strauss, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, announced.
Russian Foreign Ministry officials said diplomatic notes had been exchanged specifying that the necessary steps had been taken to enact the "open lands" memo signed by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and President Bush during their June summit in Washington.
"This is what I have worked for over the last three years--so that there would be free movement across the whole country and no limitation on gathering information," said an official of the Russian Foreign Ministry. "It's a big leap toward strengthening our friendship. The more we can move through each other's countries, the more we will know about each other."
Although the superpower stalemate crumbled when the Soviet Union ceased to exist last year, journalists and business representatives were still required to follow strict rules on travel; the rules were remnants of chillier times in relations between the two countries.
For journalists and business people working in Moscow to travel to other Russian cities, they had to first tell the Foreign Ministry about their plans 24 or 48 hours in advance, depending on the destination. Officials had the right to reject any trip and often did so to keep journalists away from areas embroiled in ethnic violence or political upheaval. About 6% of what once was Soviet territory was closed to foreigners; the restricted zones included huge areas near the Soviet borders.
But now, only military sites and some defense factories will be off limits to American reporters without special permission.
On the American side, similar restrictions had been imposed on then-Soviet citizens working in America. Washington made Russians go through steps similar to those imposed by Moscow on their American counterparts; American officials denied Soviet reporters' and trade officials' requests to travel to cities, besides Washington, in a tit-for-tat style that was characteristic of the Cold War.
Reporters and business people also had to apply to official travel bureaus--one in Washington and one in Moscow--for plane and train tickets and hotel reservations. Even trips that were not officially refused by the respective governments were delayed or sabotaged by these bureaus.
Through the years, this practice seriously limited the free flow of information about the Soviet Union. For instance, after Soviet troops attacked a crowd of peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi, Georgia, on April 9, 1989, journalists were denied permission to travel to the area. When the Baltic republic of Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union in March, 1990, reporters also were denied permission to go there.
As late as last month, American journalists were turned down when they requested permission to travel to Kamchatka, a peninsula on the Russian Pacific Coast, and were told that the area was closed. They showed a Foreign Ministry official a decree by Yeltsin of this summer opening the region and were told they could go. But the official travel agent said there were no tickets available.
The Russian diplomat said such problems will not immediately disappear because of the chaotic situation in Russia and conflicting messages given by various officials.