Vershbow Should Step Up and Be Counted

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In 1996, the United States paid $22.56 in rent for Spaso House, the ambassador's elegant residence in central Moscow. That August, The Washington Post asked Thomas Pickering, the departing ambassador, how it felt to live in a mansion for a few bucks a month. In reply, the Post reported, Pickering "chortles with frugal delight."

Pickering noted that the 20-year lease for Spaso House would not expire until 2006, though hyperinflation had reduced his rent "to [roughly] $30 a year, which I'm quite happy about."

The Russians countered that every other nation in the world had renegotiated leases for diplomatic missions. They also pointed out, correctly, that under international law, hyperinflation constitutes a contract-nullifying force majeure.

Pickering replied that the United States would happily buy the building. Until that happened, he was happy to be amused.

This stance was hardly, shall we say, diplomatic. It also pained those of us who believed that buying Spaso House was a great idea. (It would be hard to imagine a weaker negotiating position for buying a property than to deny the owner a fair rent while publicly chortling about it.)

Surprising as Pickering's stance was, it was surely just one man's opinion. The situation reflected so badly on the United States that one assumed competent people would step forward.

In 1997, however, the Russians were still complaining bitterly about the rent. In 1998, as the ruble collapsed, everyone had more pressing concerns.

But by 1999, the United States was again asking to buy Spaso House, this time in return for a write-down of World War II-era lend-lease credits the Russians are unlikely to repay anyway. "The rent has been partially renegotiated," The Moscow Times reported then, but "the U.S. Embassy has refused to disclose the current figure."

Apparently that was not true; the rent had not changed meaningfully. In fact, in February 2001, The St. Petersburg Times (of Russia) reported that rent for the U.S. Consulate and the consul's residence in St. Petersburg totaled $6.

A half-year later, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow arrived. In 2001, 2002 and 2003, his embassy paid Pickering's amusing pittance.

This year, the Russians again returned our $2.50 rent check and again gained the world's sympathy. Perceived American arrogance was headline news from Singapore to New Zealand, from Canada to England. Pravda quoted a Russian official who called it a "mockery." The Washington Post noted that it marked "the 10th anniversary of Russian whining about the rent."

At any time we could have publicly offered the Russians, say, $50,000. It would have still been an unacceptable low-ball. But returning a $50,000 rent check doesn't get you international headlines. More importantly, offering one doesn't make you look an arrogant jackass.

I put this idea to Tom Leary, the U.S. Embassy spokesman, on Sunday. He replied with talk of needing a lease and U.S. regulations on financial disbursements. I countered by asking for ambassadorial leadership. Just hold a news conference and tell the world that the United States has offered to pay $50,000 in rent, I said. Quit handing the Russians a $2.50 stick with which to beat us about the head and shoulders. We want a lease, Leary replied. We had a nice talk.

Last month, after I wrote of the annual ritual in which the ambassador offers a slap-in-the-face payment and then commiserates, the embassy wrote: "Bivens completely ignores the fact that the U.S. government has been trying for several years to find a mutually acceptable solution."

Correct. I completely ignore that. You can only expect so many free passes on that vague plea.

Matt Bivens is a former editor of The Moscow Times.