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Diplomat's Rising Star Falls With Accident

By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 16 1997; Page A01

TBILISI, Georgia, Jan. 15 -- Two tragedies occurred on the night of Jan. 3, when a Georgian diplomat's car skidded out of control near Dupont Circle and caused a violent five-car crash, say family, friends and colleagues of the envoy here in the Georgian capital.

The first, and most important, was the death of a 16-year-old Kensington girl, Joviane Waltrick, a passenger in one of the cars.

But there was another kind of tragedy, friends say, in the sudden end to the career of a young diplomat who was so highly regarded, hard-working and astute that more than a few people here believed he could one day become prime minister of this impoverished former Soviet republic.

That is the view of friends, family members and high-ranking officials here who describe the diplomat, Gueorgui Makharadze, 35, as one of Georgia's best and brightest hopes for the future -- and so resolutely sober that he is regarded as a bit of a square. It coincides with the view of American diplomats who know him.

It is also a view that is sharply in contrast -- and utterly unfamiliar -- to the perception of Makharadze in the United States, where he is seen as a repeat traffic offender who police suggest may have been drinking shortly before the accident.

The case has caused an outcry in the media and the public, combining as it does the terrible death of a young girl in the heart of the nation's capital with the hot-button issue of drunk driving and the unpopular convention of diplomatic immunity.

The intense focus on the case apparently prompted Secretary of State Warren Christopher last week to ask Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze to consider waiving Makharadze's diplomatic immunity. Shevardnadze immediately complied, saying he is "prepared" to strip Makharadze of his immunity from criminal prosecution pending the outcome of a police investigation.

"He was a very promising diplomat and we would have considered something [prominent] for him in the future," a somber Shevardnadze said in an interview today, speaking of Makharadze in the past tense as many here now do. "It was with a very heavy heart that I took this decision . . . but no matter what the sentence may be, I'd still believe my very harsh decision would be justified. Justice is very often ruthless."

However, Shevardnadze's decision is not final, and he did not rule out future negotiations with Washington over Makharadze's fate.

For Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, the decision on Makharadze not only is politically difficult, it is also personal. Before going to Washington when Georgia opened its embassy in 1994, Makharadze worked for several years as a national security aide to Shevardnadze, one of a tight-knit group of Western-leaning young men determined to build the foundations of modern democracy here.

Shevardnadze also has been friends with Makharadze's mother, a teacher who receives foreign youth delegations here, for about 40 years. In the interview, the Georgian leader said that whatever punishment Makharadze receives, it will pain him "as if my own children were punished."

That is not the only pain for Shevardnadze. The American media firestorm prompted by the case has been matched by an uproar in the Georgian press. Newspapers here say the American media have demonized Makharadze, and they attack Shevardnadze's preliminary decision to leave him to the American legal system as akin to throwing him to the wolves.

"If our best diplomat, our leading officer in our leading embassy in the leading country of today's world, is not protected by his president and by his country, how safe are we, ordinary Georgians?" asked New Generation, a moderate Georgian daily.

Shevardnadze, more politically secure today than at any time in his nearly five years as Georgia's leader, says he will weather the criticism. He says the moral principle of just punishment outweighs what he considers to be the antiquated, Cold War-era practice of diplomatic immunity.

He is also keenly aware, and intensely grateful, that $540 million in U.S. aid, much of it in the form of wheat, has kept this nation of 5 million from starving to death since it became independent five years ago.

"If not for America's disinterested aid, tens of thousands of people in Georgia would have died from famine," he said flatly.

Most Georgians are equally thankful for American assistance to a fledgling republic that, in its infancy, had to contend with two brutal separatist wars, hundreds of thousands of refugees and competing warlords who unleashed anarchy on the streets.

But when it comes to the Makharadze case, Georgian and American perceptions part ways.

Some Americans tend to see foreign diplomats in Washington as a high-living lot -- big-spending, party-hopping womanizers who disdain local custom and law.

Makharadze doesn't fit the stereotype, Georgians insist. As the No. 2 man in the Georgian Embassy, he lives in a small apartment in Arlington, for which the Georgian government pays rent. He makes about $16,000 a year. Of that, he sends $200 a month home to support his elderly parents in Tbilisi, with whom he lived before going abroad. That sum doubles their monthly income. Georgian newspapers say he will not be able to afford a competent private lawyer to defend him in court if he is charged in Washington.

Like the vast majority of Georgians, Makharadze owned no car and had virtually never driven one before he was sent abroad two years ago.

Balding, bookish-looking and bespectacled, he has never married and has had no serious girlfriends. Colleagues and family members say he spends virtually all his time working. He spent his vacation last year studying economics at Harvard, according to his sister Tamara, who visited him in Washington. He does not smoke. Friends say they have never seen him drunk, which they point out is highly unusual for a Georgian man.

"He was well-read and quiet and not at all a typical young man," said Gela Charkviani, chief foreign affairs adviser to Shevardnadze. "He's the least likely candidate for the type of image that's been created for him [in America] that I can imagine."

Nonetheless, the facts of the Makharadze case, as far as they are known, have caused anguish here, and not a little bewilderment. At 11:40 p.m. on Jan. 3, the Ford Taurus he was driving south on Connecticut Avenue slammed into a car stopped at a red light at Q Street NW. The struck car flew into the air and landed on the next vehicle in line, in which Waltrick was a passenger.

Makharadze says his brakes failed. Investigators say there is nothing to support that statement, and that skid marks suggest he was traveling around 80 miles per hour before the impact.

Although Makharadze was not asked to take a Breathalyzer test because of his diplomatic immunity -- police at the scene said they smelled alcohol on his breath -- authorities say there appears to be enough evidence to charge him. However, the degree of severity of the indictment, which could range from negligent homicide to second-degree murder, is unclear.

In an apparent misunderstanding or mistranslation earlier this week, Shevardnadze said Makharadze had been involved in three previous incidents involving driving under the influence of alcohol. Makharadze has been fined for three moving violations in the Washington area in the past two years -- two relatively minor ones and one for reckless driving. However, none involved alcohol, Georgian and American officials said today.

Friends and family members here who have spoken with Makharadze since the accident describe him as deeply upset. He has written a note of apology to Waltrick's family, and the Georgian government paid for her funeral. Like all foreign diplomats living in the United States, Makharadze was required to carry $400,000 in auto insurance coverage.

Today, Shevardnadze invited his parents in for a talk, presumably to explain his decision. They begged off, saying they were heartsick. "We are deeply sorry this young girl was killed," said Dmitri Makharadze, 73, a semi-retired lawyer and former judge who is the diplomat's father. "We just hope the investigation will be conducted fairly and justly." He then offered a toast to friendship between Georgia and the United States.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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