Spaso House Isn't a Rent-Control Building

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The U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, recently gave a speech titled "Taking Relations to a Higher Level" to an audience of Moscow foreign affairs students. The speech was full of obvious sentiment about how Americans and Russians ought to be good-faith partners.

So how do we Americans practice what we preach?

By refusing to pay the rent, of course.

This year the disgusted Russian government once again returned our rent check for Spaso House, the 12-bedroom Moscow mansion where U.S. ambassadors have lived since the Stalin era. That's because we insisted, again, that our rent for the year comes to less than $3.

That's right. Our government refuses to renegotiate a 19-year-old rent contract -- in a country where hyperinflation has since eroded 99.9 percent of the ruble's value.

All other Soviet-era contracts were long ago voided or renegotiated, on the obvious grounds that inferno-like inflation and total currency collapse constitute a force majeure. It's unheard of to hold someone to a pre-hyperinflation contract. But the U.S. government loves money more than fair play.

So once a year -- under Bill Clinton, and now under George W. Bush -- we have handed an incredulous Kremlin the ruble equivalent of a couple of U.S. dollars to rent a palatial downtown Moscow property. We also insist on paying just $6 a year to rent the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg.

From time to time, the Russian media give big play to the story of how their government has returned the annual U.S. rent check unopened. Every time, Russians fume at what can only be seen as a mocking insult. (Is it smart for the United States to infuriate the only country in the world with thousands of nuclear missiles in position -- still -- to erase North America?)

And every time the U.S. ambassador hands over that $3 rent check (while the American press mostly coughs and looks away), our top diplomat commiserates with the Russians, saying in a detached sort of way that somebody somewhere really ought to do something about it.

This year, in returning the handful of kopeks we offered, the Foreign Ministry stated that Russia would accept no less than $9 million to cover years of back rent. No doubt that's a high-end negotiating position. But a seven-figure number is surely a lot closer to fair than 2 1/2 bucks.

I understand why few Americans will argue passionately that we ought to give millions of our tax dollars to the Russians. As editor of The Moscow Times, I often wrote that corruption and Chechnya were arguments against providing lump sums of broadly-targeted financial assistance. Giving Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin a $10 billion low-interest IMF cash advance just after his finance whiz kids had declared the then-young war in Chechnya had already cost about $10 billion was particularly tacky.

I'm more sympathetic when it comes to funding concrete projects in our mutual interest -- like Nunn-Lugar spending to secure Russian arsenals, or our joint work on the international space station.

But the question of whether to pay millions of dollars in back rent isn't about foreign aid. It's about Americans having taken something and now having to pay for it -- or alternatively, to shrug, grin, and admit that we stole it.

For years we've adopted the second choice, making a mockery of "Taking Relations to a Higher Level."

Matt Bivens is a former editor of The Moscow Times.