Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 21

Relations between Canada and Russia have been tested in recent days following Moscow’s refusal to waive diplomatic immunity for two Russian diplomats charged in separate incidents on January 20 with drunk driving. In the more serious of the two cases, a Canadian lawyer–50-year-old Catherine MacLean–was killed and a friend of hers seriously injured. They were allegedly struck down while walking in a quiet Ottawa neighborhood by a car operated by Andrei Knyazev, a 45-year-old mid-level political secretary at the Russian Embassy. Approximately thirty minutes later, another Russian diplomat, 48-year-old Yevgeny Blokhin, was charged with drunk driving in a separate accident only blocks away. No one was injured in that incident. Blokhin was identified as the personal chauffeur of Russia’s ambassador to Canada, Vitaly Churkin. Prior to their respective accidents the two Russian diplomats had reportedly attended the same party. Each claimed diplomatic immunity and was returned to the Russian embassy.

Given the seriousness of the situation, Canadian authorities had asked Russia to waive diplomatic immunity for Knyazev and Blokhin so that the two might stand trial in Canada. Canadian Foreign Minister John Manley reportedly conveyed this message to his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, in a telephone conversation on Monday (January 29). During a meeting in Moscow with Canada’s ambassador, Rodney Irwin, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Georgy Mamedov expressed Russia’s regrets over the incident. Knyazev and Blokhin, together with their families, were nevertheless hustled back to Moscow on an Aeroflot flight which departed from Montreal on Monday.

Reports over the past several days have indicated that Canadian government officials, despite their frustration, were not surprised by Moscow’s recalling the two diplomats. Foreign Ministry representatives from both sides, moreover, suggested that the incident should not harm broader bilateral relations.

Given the outrage expressed in Canada over the fatal crash, however, the ability of Moscow and Ottawa to limit diplomatic fallout from Knyazev’s accident in particular could depend on the manner in which Russian authorities in the Russian capital treat the matter. According to a Canadian newspaper report, some lawyers in Russia have suggested that Knyazev is unlikely to face trial even in Moscow. One Russian trial lawyer was quoted as saying that Russian diplomats who have suffered trouble abroad in the past have rarely suffered anything more than professional disgrace. The same lawyer also said that it will be difficult to prove to a Russian court that Knyazev was drunk at the time of the accident because he had refused a breathalyzer test. Indeed, while Russian officials reportedly gave assurances to the Canadian government that Knyazev would face prosecution, they apparently refused to give any guarantees.

A former Canadian ambassador to Russia, however, thinks that Knyazev is likely to face an especially tough time in Moscow. Anne Leahy, ambassador to Russia from 1996-1999, said that Russian authorities are likely to make an example of Knyazev because he is going to be seen as “having dishonored the Foreign Ministry and the image of Russia abroad.” In support of this position, Ms. Leahy pointed out that Knyazev’s accident comes only days after Russian President Vladimir Putin dressed down the country’s diplomats and emphasized the importance the Kremlin is now attaching to improving Russia’s image overseas (see the Monitor, January 29). Peter Solomon, a University of Toronto professor who is an expert in Russian law, said that Knyazev will likely face prosecution under an article of the Russian Criminal Code which might be loosely translated as negligent and illegal use of a motor vehicle causing death. The maximum sentence for such a crime is five years, he said, and, if convicted, Knyazev would likely be sent to a Russian penal colony (Globe & Mail, January 29-30; Ottawa Citizen, January 30; Western and Russian news agencies, January 30).