The Soviet government yesterday alleged that American businessman Jay Crawford, dragged from his car here Monday by police and jailed on a currency charge, "systematically sold large amounts of foreign currency at speculative prices to Soviet citizens."
Tass, the official Soviet news agency, in its first substantive comment on the incident, also revealed that criminal proceedings have been started "against three Soviet citizens, Crawford's accomplices in the criminal activity."
The seizure and jailing of Crawford, 38 representative of International Harvester Co. here, has alarmed the small resident American business community and drawn a protest from the U.S. Embassy over the inital silence of Soviet authorities when the embassy sought information about the arrest and Crawford's wellbeing.
The brief Tass statement did not identify the three Soviets allegedly involved with Crawford, who is accused of violating Article 88 of the Russian Criminal Code, which carries a three-to-ten-year penalty.
The State Department reacted sharply to the Tass report of the charges against Crawford. Press aide Kimberly King told reporters that the United States government "finds it strange" that Tass should publish the charges before U.S. consular officials in Moscow or Crawford himself have been notified. The statement noted that Tass said Crawford had "committed a crime," while Soviet officials have told the United States that the matter is still under investigation.
Embassy consular officials have visited Crawford daily, taking him toilet articles and discussing aspects of his case. The embassy has refused to make the substance of these conversations public.Crawford, who has lived here for two years and worked as the number two man in the company's office is engaged to a secretary-architvist at the U.S. embassy. Virginia Olbrish.
The police tactics unusual in their harshness, come at a time when Soviet-American relations are under severe strains as the Carter administration and the Kremlin feud over the meaning and substance of detente. Just yesterday the party newspaper Pravda published a long, carefully worded rebuke to Carter for his recent Annapolis speech, saying the president "failed" to clarify U.S. views on its relations with Moscow.
As strains have appeared between the capitals the atmosphere here in which American diplomats, businessmen and journalists work and live has taken a similar downward turn. The Crawford incident has added to the palpable feeling of apprehension.
Soviet currency laws are rigid and complex and the embassy here warns that they can be strictly enforced. It is unlawful to use foreign currencies here except at certain official places, such as "dollar bars," as they are called, but any tourist here for more than a day or two is virtually certain to be approached by a Russian and asked to "sell me some dollars."
The official ruble-dollar exhange rate, set by the government, is presently one ruble to $1.40, a rate that Western bankers here scoff at as unreasonably favoring the ruble.
Ruples can be bought in some European capitals at a rate of about three rubles to $1, which is considered a far more reasonable valuation. But it is illegal to bring rubles into the country. The reported black market street rate for dollars is substantially higher, reportedly ranging up to six or even more rubles to $1, according to unofficial sources.
Sources said yesterday that Crawfor d has spoken during several of his meetings in jail with U.S. consular officials about current projects of his office, which now has no manager. The office director was recalled by Harvester a few months ago and Crawford was its sole American represntative.
There have been similar allegations of currency misconduct leveled at foreign businessmen in the past. The most prominent recent case was that of a Swiss businessman accused of bribing a Soviet official in an effort to increase his company's share of the market.
The two men were brought to trial and the Soviet was sentenced to death, a reflection of the seriousness with which the regime deals with economic crimes. The businessman, Walter Haefelin, was tried and sentenced to 10 years. He was released last month on a petition for clemency from the Swiss government, after spending almost four years in jail.
Last week, a Soviet judge sentenced a Canadian woman, Asta Sokov, 52, to eight years imprisonment after she pleaded guilty to attempting to take some jewelry and icons out of the country. The harshness of the sentence shocked seasoned diplomats here and attempts are being made to reduce her penalty or have her amnestied.