When Soviet police dragged Francis J. Crawford out of his silverdrey Volvo station wagon one night last June andheld him in Lefortovo prison for 15 days' intensive interrogation on black market currency allegations, it seemed as though the KGB had deliberately aimed a body blow at American business interest in better bilateral trade.
After all, the chariman of Crawford's company, International Harvester, was Brooks McCormick, a staunch supporter of more east-west trade, and an active member of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Trade and Economic Council, which aids companies seeking Russian or American markets.
The mood of most of the 23 permanent American corporate representatives, who were having another disappointing year of trade with the Soviets, turned bleak. One resident director quickly packed his bags and left for good, fed up with the difficulties and unpleasantness of life here. He was also reported to be apprehensive that he might become the next unwilling target of what Americans here regarded as Soviet retaliation. The Crawford case was felt to be a reaction to the arrest and pending trail of two Soviet United Nations diplomats on charges of naval espionage.
But six months later, with the hapless Crawford convicted in a transparent political trial and allowed to leave the country, it can be said that the Americans once more are looking cautiously if somewhat pessimistically for better times ahead for U.S.-Soviet trade.
Why this should be so is a bit of a paradox.
With few exceptions, the American businesses footing stiff annual bills to keep offices, directors, quarters and staffs afloat here -- Marshall I. Goldman, associate director of Harvard's prestigious Russian Research Center estimates it at an average of $500,000 annually per corporation) have not found a paradise here for capitalists.
The vast new markets for sophisticated American goods and services that the 1972 Soviet-American trade agreement seemed to promise have never developed. The U.S. embassy here projects that U.S. exports of nonagricultural good -- machine tools, computers and the like -- may total no more than $550 million for the year, down more than $30 million from last year's indifferent $586.7 million.
The Russians continue to be short of hard currency and stubbornly try instead for compensation agreements of little interest ot American corporations. Soviet negotiation practices try the patience of an elephant and the resourcefulness of a Houdini. Most of the county's trade with the U.S. remains in agricultural products.
Continued dollar erosion has sent skyrocketing the costs of maintaining Moscow backup services in Western Europe. And foreign competitors are aided by the complexities and delays of U.S. government-imposed licensing requirements for many technologically advanced, big-ticket items.
Business and politics have been intertwined from the beginning of the new trade relationship. The JacksonVanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act tied tariff relief for the U.S.S.R. to eased Soviet emigration restrictions. The Soviets refused to accept these and other conditions related to easier credit imposed by the Stevenson amendment.
These factors have inhibited trade in fundamental ways, creating an atmosphere of tension and Russian resentment that is now heightened by the sudden appearance of the Chinese in world markets as the U.S.S.R.'s bitterest foe seeks to modernize its backward economy.
Nevertheless, a number of American companies and the Carter administration now are hopeful that U.S. trade with the Soviets may improve.
Although the Pullman Corp. has withdrawn from permanent accreditation here, three other companies this year have gained permanent resident status: Dresser Industries, Armco International, and Control Data Corp., raising the total U.S. companies here to 25.
The U.S.-U.S.S.R. Trade and Economic Council during the past two years has added about 20 additional U.S. firms to its membership rolls. The council's 260 member companies pay dues starting at $1,000 to use low-cost translation rates and other services when their representatives are here in Moscow conducting business or talking about future deals.
The reasons for the newly accredited companies are both tactical -- impending major deals -- and strategic -- placement in the market if the future turns rosy.
Armco is currently engaged in complex negotiations to become the prime contractor for an immense rolled steel facility that could cost more that $400 million. Control data has had continuing success selling computers and related services to the Soviets, and Dresser has recently been cleared by Washington to sell a $144 million oil drill bit manufacturing plant to the Soviets.
More than 50 U.S. firms have signed long-term protocols setting forth specific trade relationships with various Soviet trading entities, and more can be expected. All these business contacts and dealings may ultimately generate substantially increased trade, but at present, U.S. exports to the U.S.S.R. account for only about 2 percent of total American exports. And bilateral trade turnouver amounts to about 0.02 percent of the officially stated Soviet gross national product. One reason is that the political quotient continues to be a major factor in Soviet-American trade.
For example, Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal and Commerce Secretary Juanita Kreps headed a U.S. trade delegation here in December, carrying a message from the White House that the president sincerely wants to improve trade with the Soviets. Kreps announced that 22 licenses being reviewed for oil field machinery and technology had been abruptly cleared and approved after some months' wait.It was largely a political gesture, clearing away bureaucratic functions that reflect the continuing American worries that U.S. technology will be used in ways inimical to American interests.
And more significantly, the cabinet officials made clear that any administration fight to repeal the JacksonVanik amendment, which the Soviets consider so onerous, must await a successful White House fight for ratification of a new Soviet-American strategic arms limitation treaty.
Final agreement on SALT-II, thought by the Americans to have been within grasp at the Geneva talks just before Christman, has slipped away. The U.S. negotiators said later that they were sure the Russians had delayed agreement at the last moment to avoid a mid-January Washington summit between Soviet leader Leonoid Brezhnev and President Carter, a summit that was likely to be upstaged at the end of the month by a visit from Chinese Vice Premier Teng HsiaoPeng.
If the Americans' well-informed hunch is correct, final SALT agreement appears possible no earlier than several months hence, followed by a Carter-Brezhnev summit and the signing. A Senate vote on SALT ratification seems unlikely before summer then, and is certain to be preceded by lengthy and perhaps bitter public hearings. That pushes any attempt at repeal of Jackson-Vanik into the fall or later, when the issue could run into deadly election year politics.
The SALT delay has somewhat dampened the enthusiastic reaction that set in after the Blumenthal-Kreps visit and a related plenary session of the U.S.-U.S.S.R. Trade and Economic Council that attracted almost 400 American businessmen to Moscow. It was marked by scores of cordial meetings between the Americans and their Soviet counterparts.
Meanwhile, potential opportunities fo better business in the future seem to suggest theselves. The complex Soviet economy, while still expanding (it was up 4 per cent in 1978), desperately needs to acquire and utilize Western technology to reverse its steadily falling growth rate and supplement a dwindling manpower supply.
Demand for petroleum -- both for crucial hard-currency-earning export as well as domestic consumption -- is outstripping supply and the exploitation rate must increase if the Soviets are to avoid an energy crunch. The U.S. has the technology to help.
The Russians also need infusions of Western know-how to improve agricultural enterprise, compared with one in 20 in the United States. The U.S. produces far more bountiful harvests every year, while the U.S.S.R. fluctuates between bare sufficiency and outright shortage.