Oceania | Diplomacy | Oceania

Suspected Russian Diplomat Is Occupying Proposed Embassy Site Vetoed by Australia

A man has been living on the site in a portable building since Sunday, after Parliament passed emergency legislation last week blocking Russia’s lease on security grounds.

Suspected Russian Diplomat Is Occupying Proposed Embassy Site Vetoed by Australia

A flag on Australia’s Parliament House flies behind where a fence surrounds a building on the grounds of a proposed new Russian embassy in Canberra, June 23, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Rod McGuirk

A suspected Russian diplomat is apparently squatting on the site of Moscow’s proposed new embassy in Canberra after the Australian government vetoed the plan on security grounds and passed legislation that Russia will try to overturn in Australia’s highest court.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese dismissed the Russian act of defiance in occupying the site, saying on Friday that a “bloke standing in the cold on a bit of grass in Canberra is not a threat to our national security.”

Albanese also said he was confident that the eviction would stand up to any Russian legal challenge.

Parliament passed emergency legislation last week blocking on security grounds Russia’s lease on the largely empty block because the new embassy would have been too close to Parliament House.

A man has been living on the site in a portable building since Sunday, when passersby first saw Australian Federal Police outside the fenced block in Canberra’s Yarralumla diplomatic precinct.

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The Russian Embassy refused to comment on media reports that the man seen smoking cigarettes outside the building was a Russian diplomat.

The embassy also declined to explain why the man was on the site, saying in an email, “The Embassy does not comment (on) this.”

Albanese said the issue would be “resolved,” but did not explain how.

“Australia will stand up for our values and we will stand up for our national security,” Albanese told reporters in a courtyard outside his Parliament House office. The outdoor temperature at the time was 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit).

Russia later informed the government that it intended to challenge the termination of the lease in the High Court on constitutional grounds, the Australian government said in a statement.

“Russia’s challenge to the validity of the law is not unexpected,” the statement said. “This is part of the Russian playbook.”

An injunction hearing has been listed for Monday, government officials said.

Australian National University international law expert Don Rothwell said occupying the site gave Russia no advantage in any legal challenge to the eviction.

“What they’re doing is diplomatic civil disobedience in terms of indicating their displeasure with the action of the Australian government,” Rothwell said.

He said Russia’s only possible constitutional challenge would be to question the Australian government’s power to overturn the decision by local Canberra authorities to issue the lease. But that power was absolute, Rothwell said.

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Russia’s only potential for a successful challenge is over the amount of compensation that Australia offers for money already spent on construction and earthworks, Rothwell said.

Russia says it has spent $5.5 million on the site since it was granted the lease in 2008. The completed work includes fencing and a single perimeter building that was to be part of a planned complex of several buildings.

If the man is a diplomat, he could claim diplomatic immunity if detained by police, who would then have to set him free.

The government could declare him persona non grata, which would mean his diplomatic immunity was revoked. Such people are then usually given 48 hours to leave Australia or face arrest.

Russia could then send another diplomat to take his place, said Rothwell, who lives in Yarralumla and noticed police outside the site on Sunday.

“That’s the sort of scenario that I think the government would be keen to avoid,” Rothwell said.

Albanese did not directly answer when asked if the government is considering revoking the man’s diplomatic status. “We’re confident of our position that it will be resolved,” he said.

Albanese also said he was not concerned by the possibility of a Russian court challenge. “We actually support the law. Russia has not been real good at the law lately,” Albanese said, referring the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Australian Federal Police declined to answer why the man had not been removed for trespassing.

Police advised reporters at the site on Friday not to cross the perimeter fence or gate, which was chained and padlocked from the inside.

A hand occasionally shifting blinds was the only evidence anyone was inside the small cabin.

Russia last week accused Australia of “Russophobic hysteria” for canceling the lease, which follows a deterioration in relations since the Ukraine war began last year.

In February, a newspaper reported that Australia had quietly expelled a large Russian spy ring whose members were posing as diplomats.

The spy ring included purported embassy and consular staff as well as other operatives using deep-cover identities, The Sydney Morning Herald reported, citing unidentified sources with knowledge of the operation.

The Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the nation’s main domestic spy agency, revealed days earlier it had “detected and disrupted a major spy network.” It has not named the country responsible.