In the latest space race, the Russians are losing, and it's about to become an international incident. At stake is one of New York's most coveted assets: a free parking space.
For years, the city has been battling deadbeat diplomats who refuse to pay their parking tickets, citing diplomatic immunity. Russia used to be the top offender, with its 178-car fleet receiving 31,388 tickets in one record-breaking year.
But the tables have turned. Somebody is parking in spaces designated for Russian diplomats, and the police refuse to ticket them. That's because the scofflaws are the police themselves, says Russian Ambassador Sergei V. Lavrov.
"All the time, the places are taken by police cars, private cars of police officers, and the fire brigade," Lavrov said. "Police are supposed to issue tickets to cars in those spaces. But they never do."
The Russian Mission to the U.N. is located on East 67th Street -- across the street from the NYPD's 19th Precinct headquarters, making the matter a literal face-off between police impunity and diplomatic immunity. Masters of surveillance, the Russians have watched police officers slip into diplomatic spots and snapped photos as evidence.
"We have formally protested to the State Department and sent the pictures," Lavrov said. "But so far to no avail."
Each side takes the parking battle personally: A Belorussian diplomat was sent home in 1996 after punching a police officer who was writing a ticket for parking by a fire hydrant. In 1997, the police issued an average of 90 tickets a day to official Russian vehicles.
Last summer, after the diplomatic community's outstanding fines reached nearly $22 million, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg issued a midnight deadline for the countries to pay up or have every car with unpaid tickets towed. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, concerned that American diplomats overseas would face retaliation, brokered a last-minute compromise: Every country would receive two dedicated spaces that the city could revoke if too many tickets piled up.
That move has reduced diplomatic tickets by 87% this year, the mayor's office says, and the Russians have become model citizens. But it hasn't completely solved the problem: Egypt now tops the list, with 17,825 violations and nearly $2 million in unpaid fines since 1997-- an average of nine tickets a day -- for the last 6 1/2 years.
In October, the Senate passed legislation sponsored by New York Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton that requires Washington to reduce a country's foreign aid package by the amount it owes in parking fines, plus a 10% penalty. Kuwait's parking debt of $1.3 million tops the amount it receives in foreign aid. The bill has yet to go to the House.
But diplomats complain that the designated spaces are easy pickings. Russians, Ukrainians and others in the area routinely arrive at their missions to find police cars hogging their spots -- on Saturday, four out of six spaces were filled by official and private police cars.
Police at the 19th Precinct and NYPD headquarters refused to cop to the charge. "No way," a police spokeswoman said. "We're not going to touch that one."