WASHINGTON — While America was transfixed by its election debacle, a story with important implications for American-Russian relations unfolded in a dingy Moscow courtroom.
The trial and subsequent conviction this month of Edmond Pope for espionage drew him 20 years' hard labor, which Russian President Vladimir Putin set aside. If the cold war has not returned, there is certainly sleet and sludge settling into the nine-year-old post-Soviet American-Russian relationship.
What's surprising is that, despite common interests, it took this long for the relationship to fray. It's also striking how much the new system is beginning to resemble the old. Russia's democracy, legal system, and security organs have all evolved since the collapse of communism into institutions that only intermittently resemble their Western counterparts, a truth that the West ignores at its peril.
Mr. Pope's travails brought back my own graduate-school memories of being detained by KGB border guards, fascinated by a photocopied map in my possession from an open-access Soviet journal. I was permitted to leave after surrendering the map and undergoing a thoroughly unpleasant interrogation, a reminder that every visitor to the USSR was a potential hostage.
Pope's activities fell into the cracks between a resurgent security agency and American naivete about doing business in post-communist "democratic" Russia. The Russian economy has imploded since 1991, and in the rush for hard currency, many assets that were the crown jewels of the Russian military-industrial complex are for sale. Government export agencies, factory managers, and self-appointed individuals with criminal connections do the bidding.
These economic realities rubbed nationalist pride raw. Many military officers and security personnel were appalled at the bargain-basement attempts to sell Russia's security assets to the former enemy. Pope's arrest and conviction have served as a stark warning to both Western businessmen eager to exploit Russia's technological military expertise and to Russian nongovernmental go-betweens that their future activities will be under increased scrutiny.
There is no doubt that the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB, has felt its prospects improve with one of "their" men as president.
Increasing harassment of Americans began even before Mr. Putin's election. In July 1999, Justine Hamilton, a Kansas State University student studying in Voronezh, was arrested and deported after being accused of espionage. Given Pope's background in naval intelligence, assertions of espionage in his case appear far more plausible.
Edmond Pope was arrested in Moscow in April. According to the prosecution, Pope was seeking information on the Shkval ("Squall"), a high-speed liquid-fueled rocket-propelled torpedo.
The Shkval is potentially one of Russia's most lucrative arms exports. It is designed to destroy aircraft carriers, and Western navies have yet to develop a credible defense against it. The Russians have been enthusiastically promoting the Shkval since an arms fair in Abu Dhabi in 1995. The upgraded Skhval would be a lucrative antidote to Western domination of the multibillion-dollar global arms trade.
Pope's background was undoubtedly known to Russian intelligence. Pope founded and oversaw the Navy's Foreign Science and Technologies Program, which promoted the exchange of scientific information between former Soviet nations and the US. Then he went into private business.
Pope's lawyer maintained that Pope was seeking public information that other former Soviet states had, and that Kazakhstan has already sold 40 Shkval torpedoes to China. The prosecution countered that Pope tried to acquire top-secret information on the torpedo's new fuel.
Arseny Myandin, designer of the Shkval, testified on Pope's behalf. Prof. Anatoly Babkin initially testified for the prosecution, but later sought to withdraw his testimony, saying that he had been threatened.
Pope's activities were known at the highest level of the Russian and American governments, as his company was participating in defense-conversion programs under the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission.
Pope is the first American to be convicted of espionage since Gary Powers in 1960. In the "old days," Pope would have languished while governments worked out an exchange of prisoners. That Putin acted so promptly is a sign of his consolidation of power, and an evident desire not to let the incident roil American-Russian relations. Congress was becoming interested, passing resolutions calling for Pope's freedom, and some were going so far as to threaten sanctions. After all, there remain a number of common interests, from nuclear-arms reductions to combating terrorism, organized crime, and the drug trade.
I remember lecturing students on study trips to Russia in the mid-1990s that, despite their ardent desire to purchase military night-vision goggles, border guards would doubtless regard them as stolen government property and confiscate them, which they did.
Edmond Pope's experiences serve to remind observers that Russia is not only the land of Tchaikovsky but also of Stalin.
John C. K. Daly received his doctorate from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London, in Russian and Middle Eastern Studies, and is a scholar at the Middle East Institute, Washington.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society