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Embassies Sweet--and Sour : Lifestyles: The diplomats who live and work all over Washington, D.C., specialize in resolving international crises. But getting along with the neighbors? That can be even trickier.

August 23, 1994|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — It was moving day at the Russian embassy and a small parade of dullish-blue vans lumbered along Massachusetts Avenue, loaded with antique furniture and vodka boxes packed with assorted papers and, perhaps, some old secrets.

After generations in a stately old building purchased by their Czarist predecessors near the heart of the capital, Russian diplomats last month relocated to the suburbs under the watchful eye of uniformed U.S. Secret Service police and neighbors such as Charlotte Jones.

"For many people in this city, there's still a Cold War being waged with embassies and their diplomats," said the Glover Park resident, standing outside the new embassy, nicknamed by locals "the Kremlin on the Potomac."

"I mean, look at the buildings, those terrible Soviet-looking things. They scar the neighborhood."

Such is the world of diplomatic Washington, where 168 foreign missions practice a curious brand of neighborhood diplomacy--not just with one another but with a sometimes-uneasy population of ever-watchful locals.

On tree-shaded streets and especially along Massachusetts Avenue--dubbed Embassy Row--diplomatic headquarters sit alongside homes whose owners are often miffed over where the diplomats park and how often they mow their lawns, and suspicious of just who passes through embassy doors.

While locals worry about diplomatic immunity run amok and millions in unpaid parking-ticket fines amassed by embassies, tourists flock past colorful foreign flags so abundant they need a guidebook to decipher them all.

Indeed, there's a topsy-turvy geography to Washington's diplomatic landscape. Embassies of feuding nations sit side-by-side or just blocks apart. Countries that couldn't be farther away on the world map are unlikely neighbors.

El Salvador is a block away from the former Yugoslavia. The Bolivians are next door to the British and across from the South Africans.

Here, the Austrians rub elbows with the Pakistanis. Cameroon is a neighbor to Venezuela. The Israelis are near their former mortal enemies the Egyptians and Jordanians--close enough to borrow a cup of sugar in a pinch. And the Zimbabweans--they're next door to the Washington School of Psychiatry.

Embassies of richer nations such as France, Japan and England have sprawling compounds where diplomats host lavish parties, film festivals and cultural exhibits for guests including local residents.

Poorer nations, such as Rwanda, Guatemala or Bangladesh, reside in more modest properties--some in multistory brick structures that might have once housed a single upper-middle-class family.

Some embassies are owned, others leased. Most have their offices--called chancelleries--connected to the ambassador's residence. Newborn nations sometimes conduct business from a hotel room or desk in an attorney's office.

"Location is everything, especially in the world of embassies," said Harry W. Porter, deputy director of the State Department's Office of Foreign Missions. "Most countries strive for the prestige of a respectable address. Others try to do business on the cheap. We've had to inform some that the neighborhood they've chosen is dangerous, that it's just not a good idea to move there."

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Until its government changed, the South African embassy held the dubious distinction of attracting the most demonstrators. After President Nelson Mandela was elected, the anti-apartheid protesters were invited as honored guests to his Inauguration Day celebration here.

The Canadians have perhaps the choicest site in Washington--a Pennsylvania Avenue address with sweeping views of the city. Iran's ramshackle embassy has been abandoned for more than a decade, since its diplomats were banished after a mob takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

And the Israelis--they're known for security. No one enters without an appointment--especially after the bombing of an Israeli embassy building in London and a Jewish social services center in Buenos Aires last month. "Inside this building," said one worker, "you are in the safest place in the world."

While uneasiness separates some Middle Eastern diplomats, Israeli, Bahraini, Jordanian and Egyptian embassy workers eat lunch together at a tiny park near their chancelleries.

Not all relationships are so courtly. On Massachusetts Avenue, where chancelleries are packed tighter than summer tourists on a subway ride, tempers often flare.

In 1976, when a car bomb killed former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier at Sheridan Circle, the noise and flying shrapnel startled diplomats in the nearby embassies of Greece and Turkey, bitter antagonists. Each embassy reported to the State Department that it was under attack by the other. And the Israeli chancellor, traveling in a car near the bomb site, feared he was a target of a Palestinian attack.

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Meanwhile, Washingtonians are growing more suspicious of immunity enjoyed by foreign diplomats. While embassies are not exactly considered foreign soil, they're the next closest thing.

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