IT'S ONE OF THE LONGEST-RUNNING diplomatic disputes of the century: New York versus the rest of the world. Even after the retirement of famously combative mayor Ed Koch and the breakup of his nemesis, the Soviet Union, New York remains the only American city with its own foreign policy. The difference is that with the defeat of communism, current mayor Rudolph Giuliani has been free to focus on an issue dearer to New Yorkers than freedom itself, namely parking. Just last month, he got the State Department to agree to take away the license plates of diplomats who haven't paid their parking tickets in more than a year. At the United Nations, this was widely regarded as one of the gravest abuses of diplomatic hospitality since Philip IV moved the papacy to Avignon for most of the 14th century. Work on the great issues of war and peace ground momentarily to a halt as the Committee on Relations With the Host Country last week voted, 13-1, to refer this outrage to the General Assembly. In response to suggestions that the United Nations might relocate to a city with more congenial parking rules, such as Vienna, Giuliani said that he would be happy to inherit the U.N. property on the East River. "It's the most valuable real estate in the world," he said cheerfully.
Giuliani insisted that his only goal was to get diplomats to obey New York's parking laws. But he also wouldn't mind collecting the fines, averaging $40 each, on 134,281 tickets issued last year to diplomats from the U.N. missions and consulates. A spokesman for the city's Finance Department couldn't say how many of these were unpaid--a few countries, such as Canada, routinely pay up--but he said it was "certainly more than half." The most lawless nation, by a wide margin, was Russia, with 178 vehicles registered to its U.N. mission and $1,$88 parking tickets in 1996-an average of nearly 15 tickets a month per car.
To many diplomats, the crackdown strikes not just at their right to leave their cars outside Bloomingdale's on Saturday mornings, but the principle, codified in the Vienna Convention of 1961, that shields diplomats from prosecution by their host governments. "If we allow them to collect on parking tickets, the next day they could take away our diplomatic immunity," said Julia Tavares de Alvarez, the Dominican Republic's ambassador to the United Nations. (She, however, like many longtime New Yorkers, has given up her car and now walks to most destinations in Manhattan.) But a similar plan took effect in the District of Columbia in 1994 and is working smoothly, according to the State Department. There, 97 percent of the tickets issued last year were paid. (A department official noted that American diplomats abroad are expected to pay their own traffic tickets, although he added that some countries don't issue parking tickets at all.)
But Washington is not New York, where midtown garages charge $25 or more a day, and often "you can't find parking even if you want to pay," says Ivo Sramek, a counselor at the Czech Mission. Nor do many diplomats consider it consistent with their national honor to use the subways, described in The Washington Post by a member of the French delegation as "outdated, dangerous and dirty... worse than in many major capitals, indeed many major capitals of the developing world." As for taxis, the same Frenchman called them "wrecks, which in countries that have appropriate traffic police would not even be allowed on the road." Many diplomats also charged that New York cops are targeting them for special attention. The Russian Mission has the misfortune to share a block with a police station and a firehouse, which means that the ambassador's car isn't safe from ticketing even if his driver is sitting in it, says a receptionist at the mission. She adds that when former American ambassador Madeleine Albright came to dinner the police didn't ticket her car.
Exactly how the United Nations plans to make its point--there was talk of an appeal to the International Court of Justice at The Hague--remains to be decided. Meanwhile, though, "the whole operation in Albania has escaped everyone's attention," lamented Russian diplomat Dmitri Choulga. The State Department, over Giuliani's protests, said last week it "will continue to adjust" the plan in response to international concerns. But on the very same day, a New York cop, invoking the principle that towing is an extension of diplomacy by other means, attempted to ticket and tow an empty bus belonging to the Russian Mission that had been blocking a lane of traffic on Lexington Avenue for 40 minutes. The effort was thwarted when three Russian diplomats sneaked aboard the bus just as it was being hooked up to the tow truck. But the mayor seems determined to show that one man still believes America can be the world's policeman. Or at least its traffic policeman.