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American Surprised At Reports He Was Expelled

  • Bruce Keppel

Bellingham, Washington, May 14 (RFE/RL) -- An American entrepreneur doing business in Russia has expressed surprise at press reports over the weekend that he was expelled from Russia on espionage charges.

Our correspondent says Richard Dann Oppfelt was astounded to learn last Friday, after having stepped off the Alaska Airlines flight from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy in the northwestern U.S. city of Seattle, that he had been expelled from Russia on unspecified charges of espionage. Oppfelt told our correspondent that he had left Petropavlovsk, as scheduled and voluntarily, on Friday May 10. And since arriving back home, he says, he has been trying to make sense of what others say has happened to him. He worries that, "if it can happen to me, it could happen to anyone else" working in Russia. The headlines in the United States on Monday wove variations along the theme of "Russia expels Seattle businessman." But Oppfelt says no one in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy on his departure had told him that he was being expelled.

Nor, he adds, was he contacted by the U.S. State Department, even as late as Monday night.

A State Department spokesman (unnamed) told our Washington correspondent on Monday that the U.S. embassy in Moscow queried the Russian Foreign Ministry about Oppfelt. The spokesman also said the department was attempting to reach Oppfelt.

Meanwhile, Oppfelt told RFE/RL that he was not detained for two weeks by Russian authorities, as some accounts had it. Rather, he said, he was "interviewed" for three and a half hours on April 30 while "drinking vodka and eating cucumbers" with his questioners. Oppfelt is a loquacious, 39-year-old American entrepreneur who speaks Russian well and who, four years ago, sensed the economic opportunities that existed there for someone based in Seattle, Washington, so close to the Kamchatka Peninsula.

With Russian controlling partners, Oppfelt says, he put together a company -- Seattle Trade Consortium -- that foundered but never went bankrupt. To carry on business, Oppfelt formed a new company, with American partners, that left him in control. This company, he called Seattle Medical Exports, or Seamex. He says it has taken several years to make the arrangements to begin moving medical goods from Seattle to Petropavlovsk, which started late last year. Oppfelt says, "I do a lot of business over there, and I have a lot of friends, and I talk to a lot of different people about a lot of different things." But, he adds, this has nothing to do with espionage. "Yes," he says, "I did receive information, and I did pay for it." The initial accounts said the Russians charged him with "paying a sailor 300 dollars" for information, presumed to be secret. He doesn't dispute that. In fact, Oppfelt admits paying 300 dollars but said the information came from a navy officer and was unclassified and similar to what one would find in the United States on any motorist's road map. "I am offered information all the time," he adds, but during his three-and-a-half-hour interview on April 30th, this payment was not even raised. And after the talk, he worked for 10 more days and then flew home because his visa was expiring. He says he had planned to return in July, but now wonders if he will. Oppfelt denies that the cause of what happened to him was any insensitivity on his part to Kamchatka's former closed status for military reasons. "I am very sensitive to these issues," he says. The problem is that "there is no rule book (in Russia), so you are left to guess." He says dealing in Russia at this point in time is a very difficult undertaking.