Sun, Jan 05, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Where corruption flows like vodka

Corruption has reached epidemic proportions in Russia, but tackling the problem could mean the dismantling of the entire state

By Vladimir Voinovich

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

My friend Boris was leaving my house drunk. So I suggested that he not drive. He asked why. "You are under the influence," I said. "Aren't you afraid of the police?" "No," Boris replied, "I have a document with Benjamin Franklin's face on it. This always helps me." He showed me his driver's license with a $100-dollar bill tucked beside it.

Obviously, I knew that the police take bribes, but was concerned that Boris might bump into one who wasn't corrupt. "No way," argued Boris. "To be a traffic policeman you must pay off your boss. If you don't take bribes, how can you pay off the boss? Half of Moscow's drivers use licenses bought illegally. Idiots who try to do things honestly drown in bureaucratic minutia. Pay US$100 bucks and you can drive around with no brakes!"

Bribery and embezzlement have always existed in Russia, before Lenin's October Revolution and after. But never at so titanic a level as today. Bribes are taken by everyone, everywhere, and for everything. Only those not offered bribes, said Boris, don't take them.

Bribery flourishes in most institutions, and the fight against it always ends in disaster or surrender. Police, prosecutors and customs officials, even the Kremlin -- no one and nothing is immune.

Recently, I visited a dacha village in one of Moscow's prettiest suburbs. It was luxurious, but similar to a gulag with its high perimeter fences and guards. Examining the pretentious homes so tastelessly decorated, I asked who owned them and was told that one house was that of a deputy mayor of Moscow, another housed a famous singer, another the son of the Moscow prosecutor. But the most eye-catching estate belonged to a modest officer from the tax services.

Corruption now threatens Russia more than the war in Chechnya. In fact, the Chechen war would not have lasted as long as it has if it weren't for corrupt generals, officers, clerks and policemen who sell weapons and supplies to the rebels.

Russian TV recently showed a bus shuttling from Grozny to Moscow, the very bus that brought to Moscow the 120kg of explosives used in the siege of the Dubrovka theater where so many died in the attempt to rescue the hostages. A female bus passenger kept the explosives covered with an acid-dipped cloth to prevent inspection sniffing dogs from sensing it.

An unnecessary precaution. No one checks buses nowadays. The driver, who didn't know what he was carrying, said that he was stopped 50 times on the journey. But it was always the same. A policeman would ask, "Do you know the price?" "Sure I do," the driver would reply, pay the bribe, and go on. Without the bribe, the bus would have been delayed for hours at each stop, days for the whole journey.

The Chechen War goes on and on not only because the Chechen rebels have al-Qaeda and the whole `Terrorist International' as allies, but because they have an ally in Russian corruption. Policemen, military and civil bribe-takers and thieves, who first tax the Chechen civilians or simply steal from them, sell arms and explosives to the terrorists, reveal military maps of mine fields and supply the rebels with fake documents. In May this year during the Kaspiisk city explosion terrorists used arms that were purchased from Russian Army officers.

The rebels have modern weapons. From where? In the mountains, where the rebels hide, there are no gun-shops. But the 80,000 Russian soldiers opposing the rebels do have ammunition warehouses, from which arms are stolen and sold. Not only arms -- some junior officers sell their own men into slavery.

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