Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 191

While much of the world has in recent days fixed its attention on developments in the Middle East and the Balkans, Russian news sources covering international affairs have also devoted considerable attention to a third issue this week: what they describe as a deepening diplomatic row between Russia and the United States over the fate of Edmond Pope, the American businessman arrested by Russian authorities on espionage charges. Russian newspapers gave wide coverage this week to a resolution calling for Pope’s release which the U.S. House of Representatives passed on October 10. The U.S. action generated a storm of criticism in Moscow, which also received ample coverage in the Russian press, and led some in Moscow to conclude that Russian-U.S. relations may be on the edge of a crisis arising from the Pope case.

Edmond Pope’s imprisonment has been an irritant in Russian-U.S. relations since the 63-year-old former naval officer was arrested by agents of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) this past April. Most Russian accounts have said that Pope is accused of trying to procure classified information about a high-speed Russian torpedo, an accusation greeted with incredulity in the United States. Pope’s defenders say that he is a businessman who was working openly in efforts to develop projects with Russian defense enterprises. They have also said that there is nothing secret about the torpedo he is alleged to have made inquiries about, and that the weapon has been sold to foreign buyers (see the Monitor, September 12, 21).

But the case that Russian prosecutors are building against Pope may be more complicated than that. The daily Izvestia, for example, quoted FSB officials last week as saying that Pope is accused of trying to procure so-called “dual use” technologies (technologies with civilian or military applications) (Izvestia, October 6). It may be noteworthy that a Russian scientist–Vladimir Shchurov–has also been charged recently with the same crime (see the Monitor, October 9). Nezavisimaya gazeta, meanwhile, quoted a Russian Foreign Ministry statement on October 7 as saying that Pope is likely to be accused of having compiled classified date on the defense capacity of the Russian Federation (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 7). Whatever the precise charge, Pope reportedly faces a jail sentence of from ten to twenty years. His trial is scheduled to begin next week.

The growing importance of the Pope case to officials in Washington has been evident over the past ten days. The resolution which the House passed on October 10 was first approved by members of the House International Relations Committee a week earlier. The resolution calls on U.S. President Bill Clinton to consider cutting all financial aid to Moscow and to authorize U.S. officials to try to block Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization if Moscow refuses to release Pope. It also opposes rescheduling millions of dollars of Soviet-era debt which Russia owes the United States (AP, October 3; Reuters, October 4, 10). The move by U.S. lawmakers was accompanied on October 4 by an unusual U.S. State Department statement–one clearly linked to the Pope case–warning U.S. businessmen that they face risks if they attempt to enter into agreements with Russia’s military-industrial complex. “Any misunderstanding or dispute in such transactions can attract the involvement of the security services and lead to investigation or prosecution for espionage,” the department said (AP, October 4).

Although the U.S. House resolution is nonbinding, Russian officials have in recent days responded to it–and to a lesser degree to the U.S. State Department warning–with indignation. Among other things, Russian lawmakers have accused the United States of violating international norms, of interfering grossly in Russia’s internal affairs and of trying to subvert the Russian legal system. The threat in Washington to tie the Pope case to broader Russian-U.S. relations, and particularly to economic dealings between the two countries, has led some in Moscow to warn that ties between the two countries may be approaching a crisis over the matter. Meanwhile, many Russian commentators and officials have pointed to the looming U.S. presidential election as the primary motivation for the Pope resolution. They suggest that Congressional Republicans hope to use the issue to discredit the Clinton administration (Vremya MN, October 6; Reuters, Russian agencies, October 11; Nezavisimaya gazeta, Vedomosti, Segodnya, Izvestia, October 12).

Russian indignation over U.S. threats relative to Pope appears to overlook several key U.S. concerns. One is the unwillingness of Russian authorities–namely, the FSB–to allow Pope to be examined by a U.S. doctor. Pope suffers from a rare form of cancer, yet Moscow has dismissed U.S. concerns over his health. A Moscow court, moreover, has turned down his plea that he be released on bail so as to receive proper medical attention.

A second factor of obvious concern to the U.S. side–one unacknowledged by Russian officials–is the weakness of the Russian judiciary relative to the country’s security agencies. The past five years have seen a series of cases in which Russian citizens–including nuclear researchers, scientists and possibly a Russian diplomat–were arrested by the FSB on defense related espionage charges. In two of those cases Russian courts ruled (but only after years of delay) in favor of the defendants. In several of the still pending cases, moreover, the charges the FSB lodged seem to be similarly trumped up. The spectacle of Russia’s security agencies running roughshod over the rights of Russian citizens on national security related issues does little to inspire confidence in the United States, therefore, that the FSB’s case against Pope is built on any more solid a foundation. Against that background, U.S. concerns over the legality and propriety of Pope’s arrest and continued detention seem entirely justified.