- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2000

Breakfast politics

Foreign diplomats got a taste of Washington politics yesterday when a senior Democratic congressman refused to cross a union picket line at a Capitol Hill restaurant, leaving two dozen ambassadors who had come to hear him speak waiting inside.

Rep. Sam Gejdenson dispatched an aide to enter La Colline to explain that the Connecticut Democrat had to honor the picket line because of his political support for labor unions and would have to break his commitment to address the diplomatic breakfast.

The explanation confused many ambassadors and angered a few, who left "grumbling," one diplomat said. The ambassadors noted that they had set aside time in their busy schedules to hear the senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.

Hungarian Ambassador Geza Jeszensky said, "Why wouldn't he come? We were not prevented from coming inside."

Diplomatic lobbyist Edward J. von Kloberg, who hosted the event, quickly turned a pending public relations disaster into a civics lesson, when he invited the ambassadors to stay for breakfast and discuss the role of political protest in American democracy.

Mr. Jeszensky explained that as someone who comes from a former communist country, he understands the right of demonstrations and union strikes.

"It is essential for every group to present its issues, but not to block [businesses]," he said.

Darius Degutis of the Lithuanian Embassy, noting this is an election year, said he understood Mr. Gejdenson's dilemma.

"Which would have been more newsworthy, crossing the line or honoring it?" he asked. "I have learned something here."

Timothy Towell, a former U.S. ambassador, tried to explain "our rather bizarre system."

Lesotho Ambassador Lebohang K. Moleko said he was personally bothered by ignoring the picketers, but had made a commitment as the representative of his country that he had to honor.

"Some of us crossed the picket line, even though we agree with their right to strike," he said.

Eberhard Koelsch, deputy chief of mission at the German Embassy, said strikers in Germany often physically block people from crossing picket lines.

He said he was impressed that the picket was nonviolent.

"The freedom of association ends where my freedom to walk through begins," he added.

As it turned out, the picketers outside the restaurant, which was fully staffed with waiters and cooks, were not employees. They were members of the AFL-CIO's Local 25 angered with La Colline owner Paul Zucconi, who refuses to bargain with them.

The reason is very simple, Mr. Zucconi told Embassy Row yesterday. His employees are no longer members of the union, which they rejected in December.

New embassy in China

The United States is planning to build a new embassy in China to replace the one that was attacked by mobs last year in protests over the accidental NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia.

Even before the embassy was attacked, it was inadequate for the U.S. diplomatic staff, a senior State Department official said this week.

"Our embassy facilities are among the worst in the world," said the official, speaking on background.

The official said the new embassy will be built by 2005 or 2006 on a 430,000-square-foot plot of land in Beijing.

The official also said the embassy is understaffed by about 25 diplomats, and the State Department is finding difficulty attracting Foreign Service officers to Beijing because of the language differences and poor living conditions.

Out-of-work diplomat

Former Slovenian Ambassador Dimitrij Rupel lost his new job as foreign minister yesterday when the ruling Slovene coalition government fell.

Mr. Rupel returned to Slovenia in February, after two years as ambassador here. Mr. Rupel is a member of the Liberal Democracy of Slovenia, a centrist party and the largest member of the former coalition. The new center-right government consists of the Slovenian People's Party and the Social Democrats.

Although he is out of a job, Mr. Rupel is not out of a paycheck. Under Slovenian law, he will continue to receive his salary for the next six months.

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