Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 31

The case of a Russian diplomat charged with the drunk-driving death of a Canadian woman could yet strain Russian-Canadian relations, but for now at least appears to be bringing more opprobrium on the Canadian Foreign Ministry than on either its Russian counterpart or the diplomat involved in the tragedy. The case in question involves Andrei Knyazev, a 45-year-old mid-level political secretary at the Russian Embassy, who on January 27 struck down and killed a 50-year-old Canadian woman and severely wounded another in a quiet Ottawa neighborhood. Canadian police accused Knyazev of being drunk at the time. The Russian Foreign Ministry refused Canadian requests that Knyazev’s diplomatic immunity be waived so that he might face charges connected with the accident in Canada. Instead, Knyazev and another Russian diplomat–who was also arrested for drunk driving in a separate incident which took place in a nearby neighborhood at almost exactly the same time–were hustled out of the country aboard an Aeroflot flight and brought back to Russia (see the Monitor, January 31).

The seriousness of Knyazev’s accident and the failure of the Canadian Foreign Ministry to win the immunity waiver generated an immediate wave of outrage in Canada, which included sharp criticism of how the ministry handled the affair. That criticism grew sharper, however, when it was revealed in the days following the accident that Knyazev had been involved in two previous drunk driving incidents and that because of his driving record Canadian police had tried in 1999 to suspend his license for ninety days. Canadian opposition politicians were especially critical of the Foreign Ministry for having officially apologized to Moscow following one of those earlier incidents. The Russian Foreign Ministry had demanded the apology after Canadian police had handcuffed and detained Knyazev–a breach of conventions governing the treatment of diplomats (Reuters, Globe & Mail, February 1, 3).

In Moscow, meanwhile, it remains unclear just how vigorously Russian authorities will fulfill their initial pledge to the Canadian government to conduct a full investigation into Knyazev’s criminal culpability for the January 27 accident. That Moscow might be attempting to brush the case under the rug was suggested in a February 2 Russian news article which said that Knyazev could very well go unpunished. The report quoted an unnamed Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, who said that Knyazev was at the time not facing a criminal investigation, but rather an internal inquiry into his actions. “For the time being,” the official was quoted as saying, “there is no talk of a criminal investigation.” Several days later, Canadian Foreign Minister John Manley said that he too was disturbed by Russian reports suggesting that Knyazev might get off easy. But he said that the Canadian embassy in Moscow had received assurances that a criminal investigation would in fact follow the internal investigation. That same message was reinforced in remarks from the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, reported on February 9, which said that the Russian Foreign Ministry had handed over to prosecutors both a file gathered by Ottawa police in the wake of the January 27 accident and a Canadian request that the matter be pursued by the relevant authorities in Russia. The Prosecutor General’s Office suggested that a decision would be announced by February 15 as to whether Knyazev would face criminal charges. If so, he could face up to five years’ imprisonment in a labor camp (Toronto Star, February 7, 9; Ottawa Citizen, February 9).

While Russian media have reportedly been sharply critical of Knyazev, press treatment of the case took an unexpected and potentially ugly turn last week when the generally respected Novaya Gazeta ripped into the Russian Foreign Ministry for failing, the newspaper claimed, to act on behalf of a Russian woman who had been hit last fall by a Canadian diplomat driving a Ford Explorer. The newspaper report said that Tamara Davidson, the wife of a Canadian military attache, had struck Valentina Moskalyk on a busy Moscow street on the evening of November 2. The report accused the Foreign Ministry of doing nothing, despite what it said were the significant injuries Moskalyk suffered. A few days after the Novaya Gazeta report, a Canadian newspaper obtained a Moscow police report which said that Davidson would have faced six charges in connection with the accident had she not been protected by diplomatic immunity. These latest reports contrasted sharply with Canadian Foreign Ministry accounts of the accident, which said that Davidson had not been driving improperly, that Moskalyk had walked away from the accident with only minor injuries, and that Canadian diplomats had cooperated fully with Moscow authorities. Moskalyk, meanwhile, is reportedly seeking US$95,000 in compensation from the Canadian government (Ottawa Citizen, February 9; National Post Online, February 13).

The soon-to-be-expected ruling by the Russian Prosecutor General’s office regarding the disposition of the Knyazev case should go a long way toward determining whether the case becomes a more serious point of friction between Ottawa and Moscow. In the meantime, however, Canadian diplomats can only be disturbed by the appearance of the Novaya Gazeta article, coming as it did three months after the November accident had seemingly been settled without incident in Moscow, and on the eve of the prosecutor general’s ruling on the Knyazev case. Whether the Russian government chooses to make an issue of the November accident will also provide a hint as to whether the Novaya Gazeta article might be part of an officially inspired campaign to punish Canada for having so adamantly pursued the prosecution of Knyazev.