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Western Press Review: Diplomatic Immunity Under Scrutiny

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, 7 January 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Last Friday's tragic car crash involving a Georgian diplomat in Washington D.C. has brought to the fore the issue of diplomatic immunity in the U.S. press. Continuing developments in Serbia and the issue of Russian arms also draw the attention of Western commentators.

All the analyses agree that diplomatic immunity as an institution is not under threat. The practice, going back centuries, was formally codified by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. It protects diplomatic staff from arrest, trial and imprisonment. The United States has recognized and practiced diplomatic immunity since 1790. Nevertheless, last week's accident combined with recent incidents in New York involving a Russian and a Belarusian diplomat has renewed discussion of the issue.

On Friday, police say a car driven by Georgian diplomat Georgi Makharadze plowed into traffic in downtown Washington. The car was allegedly traveling as fast as 130 kilometers an hour in a 40 kilometers an hour zone. The force of the impact propelled another vehicle into the air, causing it to land on the roof of a neighboring car, crushing a 16-year-old girl to death. Because Makharadze enjoys diplomatic immunity, police could not force him to take a breathalyzer test nor could he be made to take a blood or urine test to determine alcohol level.

ASSOCIATED PRESS: Americans will not send money to a nation that would harbor a drunk driver

Laura Myers, writing for the AP news agency, reports on a motion by Senator Judd Gregg, who urged President Bill Clinton in a letter to withhold up to $30 million in aid to Georgia if Tbilisi refuses to waive diplomatic immunity for Makharadze so he can be prosecuted in the United States. Gregg's letter says in part that "Americans will not tolerate having their dollars go to a nation which would use a legal technicality to harbor a drunk driver whose actions have led to this tragic death." Myers adds that if criminal charges are recommended by the U.S. Attorney's Office now investigating the case, "the U.S. government will ask Georgia to waive diplomatic immunity."

WASHINGTON POST: The U.S. may ask Georgia to recall Makharadze

Ruben Castaneda and Karl Vick say the U.S. State Department is not optimistic this will happen, as the case is exceptionally serious and Makharadze is a senior diplomat. In that case, they write, the United States will ask Georgia to recall Makharadze, but they say there will then be pressure on Tbilisi to make monetary reparations.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE: Diplomatic immunity protects diplomats from wrongful arrest

Terry Atlas, in an analysis, says "State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns was in the uncomfortable position Monday of having to defend the practice of diplomatic immunity that puts foreign envoys outside the reach of American law." He notes that the practice is sometimes abused, but he quotes American diplomats as saying immunity "is vital to protecting American diplomats and their families overseas who might otherwise wrongly face arrest and imprisonment in authoritarian or hostile countries." That is in fact what State Department spokesman Burns tried to stress, saying "There's a logic to this diplomatic immunity and it's self interest, which we believe the American people will understand once it's explained to them."

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE: Diplomats have a legal obligation to respect local laws

Nevertheless, as Carol Landry writing for AFP reports, Burns noted that "All diplomats living and serving in the United States...all have a legal obligation to respect local laws..." In a tactfully-worded expression of U.S. displeasure, he added, "I think we've seen some examples that have caused us great concern."

At the end of December, two senior diplomats at the Russian and Belarusian missions in New York City were stopped by police on suspicion of drunk driving. Police detained the men before they could establish their diplomatic identities. The diplomats were subsequently released, but the Russian Foreign Ministry has demanded an apology for the alleged mistreatment of its emissary. For his part, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has charged that the diplomats tried to beat up one of the arresting officers and he has asked that both men be expelled from the United States. The case is still pending.


Back in Belgrade, the Western press takes note of yesterday's meeting between Yugoslav Army Chief of Staff Momcilo Perisic and student representatives, during which Perisic pledged not to use the army against demonstrators who have been protesting the government's cancellation of municipal election results.

FINANCIAL TIMES: An army meeting with student representatives is unprecedented

Paul Wood writing for the British paper calls the meeting "unprecedented," though he reminds readers that the army in its pledge "avoided open endorsement of the opposition Zejedno (Together) coalition."

LONDON TIMES: Milosevic's grip on the church and the army is slipping

Nevertheless, the paper says in an editorial that the army's pledge is significant. It notes that President Slobodan Milosevic "still appears in firm control of the levers on which he has traditionally relied most closely: the mass media, which is key to retaining the support of rural Serbs; an 80,000 strong cohort of heavily armed paramilitary police whose loyalty he has taken care to purchase, and a manipulable legal system. But to many Serbs, the Church and the Army embody their sense of nationhood far more surely than the apparatus inherited from Communism. His grip on both is slipping."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: The army has been at odds with Milosevic for some time

Tracy Wilkinson, in an analysis, explains the army's disenchantment with Milosevic this way: "The army has been at odds with Milosevic for some time. Many officers blame him for losing wars in the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina that stranded tens of thousands of Serbs as refugees. Milosevic dispatched his troops to fight those wars, then to advise proxy armies. But when the political expediency of international acceptance beckoned, he abandoned the army to a second tier among state institutions."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG: The opposition aims beyond correcting the outcome of local elections

Johann Georg Reissmuller, in an editorial in the German paper, says Milosevic is not the only one finding himself in a tough spot. He writes: "So far the Western powers have taken a cautious approach to the struggle between the opposition and the regime in Serbia. All they are demanding is that Milosevic recognize the opposition's victory in local elections. If he does that and opposition people in the contested cities move into local government offices, the Western powers could return to their policy of ever broader cooperation with Milosevic while making out as if they had successfully performed their duties."

But, he notes, "The Serbian opposition parties are aiming far beyond correcting the outcome of the local elections. They want to unseat the Milosevic regime and take over governing the country. Many Western politicians appear to be trying to calculate: how will the struggle for Belgrade end?"


Finally, some commentators turn their attention to Moscow and the issue of weapons.

FINANCIAL TIMES: Russia is emerging as a serious force in the world arms market

John Thornhill writes in an analysis for the British paper that Russia's recent submarine sales to Iran and its just-concluded deal to provide surface-to-air missiles to Cyprus "highlights how Russia is rapidly re-emerging as a serious force on the world arms market." But Thornhill says this trend has Western countries worried. He quotes a Western defense expert as saying "Russia currently appears to be cynically selling arms purely for financial reasons and there is little or no foreign policy input at all." Moscow doesn't deny this, according to Thornhill, but it says Britain, France, Germany and the United Staters abide by similar principles.

Thornhill quotes the deputy general director of Russia's state-run arms exporter, Rosvooruzhenie, as saying "Our competitors generally abide by no rules or ethical standards in this competition."

NEW YORK TIMES: Russian nuclear weapons have been secure since the disintegration of the Soviet Union

In an editorial today, the paper calls on Moscow to follow through on an earlier agreement to remove four kilograms of highly-enriched uranium currently in Georgia. The uranium was originally provided by Moscow to fuel a research reactor no longer in use. The editorial says "the primitive bomb design used 40 years ago by the United States would suffice to fabricate a crude but destructive weapon with not much more than the highly enriched uranium in Georgia."

It adds that "To speed the removal of the uranium, the United States offered to pay Georgia $100,000 for the material, roughly its market value, and then promised to advance Moscow $1 million to cover the cost of moving it. Political leaders approved the plan, but since then it has been blocked by disputes over how to transport the material."

The paper concludes by saying: "Russian vigilance, American assistance and a fair amount of good fortune have so far kept Russian nuclear weapons and materials secure since the disintegration of the Soviet Union. That record can be preserved if Moscow moves swiftly to collect Georgia's enriched uranium."