Australia says Russian squatting at embassy site ‘not a threat’

Suspected diplomat was first seen at the site last Sunday and is said to be living in a portable cabin.

The site of the proposed Russian embassy in Canberra. There is a metal fence and a white half-built building behind.
A fence surrounding the site where Russia was planning to build a new embassy before Australia terminated the lease [Rod McGuirk/AP Photo]

A lone Russian diplomat has been squatting on the site where Moscow wanted to build a new embassy in Canberra before Australia blocked the plan.

Australian media on Friday published photos of the man, wearing sweatpants and a Nautica jacket and smoking a cigarette, as he loitered at the mostly empty construction site.

Police are unable to remove the man because he has diplomatic immunity even though the land is no longer leased to Russia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) said.

The government last week rushed through legislation blocking Russia’s lease on the site because it was too close to parliament and a risk to national security.

Prime Minister Antony Albanese said the diplomat posed no such danger.

“Australia will stand up for our values and we will stand up for our national security, and a bloke standing in the cold on a bit of grass in Canberra is not a threat to our national security”, he told reporters on Friday in a courtyard outside his office in parliament. It is winter in Australia at the moment, and the outdoor temperature as Albanese spoke was 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit).

The man has reportedly been living on the site in a portable cabin since Sunday, when passers-by first saw police outside the fenced site in Canberra’s Yarralumla diplomatic district.

The Australian newspaper reported on Thursday that the man was a Russian diplomat and being watched by police who were unable to arrest him.

The Russian embassy declined to comment on the reports.

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

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

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

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

Russia says it has spent $5.5m on the site since it was initially granted the lease in 2008. Completed works include fencing and a single perimeter building that was to be part of a planned complex of several buildings.

Last week Moscow accused Australia of “Russophobic hysteria” for cancelling the embassy lease. On Wednesday, it barred 48 Australians from entering Russia.

Reports in February said Australia had quietly expelled a large Russian spy ring whose members were posing as diplomats.

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

Source: Al Jazeera, The Associated Press