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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Fool me Once, Shame on Me, Fool me Twice, I must be Russian

The New York Times reports on how Russia, despite the Bolshevik revolution, is descending once again into a shockingly polarized society consisting of a tiny stratum of ultra-rich and a gigantic underclass of the destitute, even while, despite the fall of the Bolsheviks, it returns to neo-Soviet authoritarianism --having learned nothing from the past century of its history. Russia now has the all the bad features of both monarchy and totalitarianism and none of the benefits of either. Indeed, the only thing its has going for it is the finite resource of oil and gas, subject to the whims of the market.

MOSCOW, Nov. 15 — A rental car agency in this capital of fast deals but snail-paced traffic advertised an unusual service for those with plenty of money but little time: rent-a-motorcade. Business Car Service promised to provide as an escort an actual police car and two traffic policemen for eight hours at a cost of only $900. The car is equipped with a siren and, most important, a flashing blue light to get you places fast.

The service — which has been suspended after a public outcry about the proliferation of blue lights — is a sign not just of how horrendous traffic has become in Moscow but also of the blurry line between wealth and state authority that is characteristic of Russia these days.

The many sirens, flashing blue lights and police escorts in Moscow have provided government employees — and more than a few rich people — with relief from intractable traffic problems, though they tend to make the traffic worse for everyone else.

The blue lights, or migalki, are affixed to the roofs of official cars like those in the motorcade of President Vladimir V. Putin.

The problem is, there are now thousands of these cars, sometimes seen wheeling into grocery store parking lots or, insidiously, parked outside casinos. Members of Parliament, ministers and deputy ministers, judges, Kremlin advisers and many others in the federal, regional and city governments are allowed to place a blue light on their official cars.

Corporate chief executives of the big state companies Gazprom and Rosneft also get the blue lights, which offer impunity from traffic rules. Though the police technically are permitted to stop these cars, they rarely do.

Special license plates that provide immunity from traffic rules are also coveted. These come in three series, beginning with AAA (called Annushkas, or little Annas), OOO (Olgas) and SSS (Svetlanas). Where to buy these is a hot topic on Russian blogs.

The whole package — a blue light, siren, license plate and supporting documents — sold on the black market for about $20,000 three years ago, according to an article published then by Novaya Gazeta, a muckraking Moscow newspaper. Now, about 7,500 cars in Russia have special plates or blue lights.

With the lights and special plates multiplying — and with companies like Business Car Service advertising on the Web — few believe every siren is whisking a public servant to important state business.

In fact, the special driving privileges have become such a sore spot for less-privileged drivers that they have spawned a rare grass-roots political movement in Russia that is gaining traction as more people own cars here.

“The right to free and privileged travel should only be given to the police, fire and ambulance,” said Vyachislav Lysakov, the founder of Free Choice, an advocacy group for drivers. “Here we have bureaucrats and people who have bought their lights.”

“It’s a problem of the traffic rules, but it’s also a moral problem spreading nihilism in our society,” he said. “A driver sees how the authorities demand he follow the law, but they don’t follow the law themselves.”

Parliament is considering measures to limit motorcade privileges. One would restrict them to the president and seven other high officials, while another, backed by United Russia, a pro-Kremlin political party, and Mr. Putin, would allow 1,000 blue lights. The chamber is expected to pass some version of the United Russia law as part of a new traffic code early next year.

Boris V. Gryzlov, the speaker of Parliament, made a show of removing the blue light from his car in September — though he still drives with a police escort. “Respected citizens, if you see flashing lights on cars belonging to members of Parliament, then these are representatives of the opposition,” he said at the time.

The blue lights evoke themes of petty privilege for minor bureaucrats and injustice for the common man that have resonated in this society from the time of the 19-century novelist Nikolai Gogol, who said there were two problems in Russia: fools and roads.

Three million cars now clog Moscow, up 12-fold since the collapse of Communism. And though a third ring road, or beltway, opened and authorities are considering computer controls for lights or converting all 10 lanes of the second ring road to one-way traffic, it is clear road repairs and construction are lagging.

Abuse of the blue light privilege is blamed, at least in part, for the alarmingly high toll of traffic deaths on Russian society.

Some 33,957 Russians died on the roads last year, or about 24 deaths per 100,000 compared with 14 per 100,000 in the United States. The chance of dying in a car in Russia is 10 times greater than in Britain, according to the World Health Organization. It cited speeding, drunken driving and disregard for seat belts as the main reasons. After a grim pileup on a foggy highway in southern Russia this fall, President Putin said traffic injuries and deaths cost 2 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product, or $11.2 billion a year. Among other drawbacks, the abundance of flashing lights on roads has inured drivers to genuine emergency sirens, ambulance drivers say, diminishing already minimal chances of getting prompt medical care.

Outside the trauma ward at Sklifosovsky Hospital on a recent evening, an ambulance driver awaited another call.

“You run into traffic jams, what can you do,” the driver, Vitaly A. Medvedov, said with a shrug. “It’s rare that they die in the car.”

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