Despite a series of not entirely consistent statements from Moscow, indications yesterday were that an American technician accused by Russian authorities of spying will not have to return to Russia for trial. Richard Bliss, an employee of the San Diego-based telecommunications company Qualcomm, was arrested on November 25 in Russia’s southern Rostov region on charges of having illegally used a hand-held satellite positioning device to set up a cellular telephone system there. The U.S. vehemently protested the arrest, and on December 24, Bliss was allowed to return home for the holidays. Reports out of Russia at the time said that the investigation of the case would continue and suggested that Bliss would have to return to Russia by January 10-11.
But unnamed U.S. government sources indicated yesterday that, because the U.S. and Russia have not signed an extradition treaty, the issue of a return by Bliss to Russia is now moot. They intimated, moreover, that Russian authorities were aware of this fact at the time of Bliss’s release, and that the action by Moscow was a tacit admission that Bliss had been freed for good. A similar message appeared to come out of Moscow yesterday, where U.S. ambassador James Collins was reportedly informed by a Russian deputy foreign minister that Bliss could indeed remain in the U.S., at least for the time being. The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that the Russian government had relaxed its claim for Bliss’s immediate return. (AP, UPI, January 8; The Washington Post, January 9)
However, a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Security Service, the agency responsible for Bliss’s arrest, was critical yesterday of the American side for what he said was a distortion of Moscow’s position on Bliss. According to Maj. Gen. Aleksandr Zdanovich, the Russian authorities had never specifically set a return date of January 11 for Bliss’s return, and he suggested that unnamed figures in the U.S. were trying to pressure Russian investigators by spreading the press reports that Bliss would not have to return to Russia. Zdanovich emphasized anew that Bliss would be summoned from the U.S. if "necessity arises for his presence in the conduct of the investigatory actions." (Itar-Tass, January 8)
Whether yesterday’s developments fully resolve the Bliss case remain unclear. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has seemed, in general, willing to find a face-saving way out of the diplomatic row, but the Federal Security Service and others indisposed to the release of Bliss could keep tensions simmering. The U.S. government, meanwhile, had warned the Kremlin that the arrest of Bliss could have a chilling effect on the willingness of foreign companies to do business in Russia, and even if yesterday’s resolution is final, it is unlikely to fully ease concerns among foreign businessmen on that score.
Foot Dragging in Opening Russia’s Skies.