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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

When Russians Fight Back

The New York Times reports:

Kirill Formanchuk [pictured, above], like almost everyone who drives in Russia, was used to being pulled over by the police and cited for seemingly trumped up infractions. Yet instead of resigning himself to paying a bribe, he turned traffic stops into roadside tribunals, interrogating officers about their grasp of the law, recording the events and filing formal complaints about them.

And so it was that Mr. Formanchuk became a leader of a budding movement to uphold motorists’ rights in the face of police corruption, making him a not unfamiliar face when he went to a police station here two weeks ago to register his car. The next time he was heard from, he was in the hospital with severe injuries from a beating, and the resulting outcry in Yekaterinburg has caused an unexpected burst of civic activism across the country at a time when such sentiments appeared to have otherwise withered.

Motorists’ groups have held demonstrations against the police in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, and an Internet posting in support of Mr. Formanchuk has received nearly 200,000 hits from around the country. Even the national television networks, which are under the Kremlin’s control and tend to ignore news that reflects poorly on the government, have begun to focus on what happened to Mr. Formanchuk on the night of Oct. 12 in an isolated jail cell. One channel called his treatment “outrageous.”

The affair, echoing the anger that erupted after the Rodney King case in the United States, suggests that resentment toward police misconduct is so widespread that the Russian government senses that it cannot immediately clamp down on the protests, as it usually does with the political opposition. Mr. Formanchuk has become a symbol for Russians who contend that the police are poorly educated, badly trained and allowed to operate with impunity. “Everyone understands that this can happen to them, too,” Mr. Formanchuk, 24, said in an interview at a hospital in Yekaterinburg, where he is to remain for at least a month with brain and skull injuries. “Because in this country, we have a problem with the law.”

The tensions over the police in Russia have soared with the enormous growth in car ownership. There are 28 million cars now, three to four times more than at the end of Communism in 1991, experts estimate. More cars mean more opportunities for the police to solicit bribes, in the view of motorists’ groups. The corruption also emboldens people to drive recklessly because they know they can skirt penalties by slipping money to an officer. (The typical bribe is $5 to $20.)

Police malfeasance has an especially corrosive effect on the public outlook toward government since here, as in most places, officers are among the most visible civil servants. The Kremlin, Parliament and the chief federal prosecutor regularly promise reforms, yet little has changed, as even those in government circles concede. “It’s time for the law enforcement services to understand that the driving public — it’s a force,” said a commentary in the Yekaterinburg edition of Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official government newspaper. “To reject cooperation with it, is not wise. Kirill Formanchuk, as we can see, is not going to give up.”

The motorist movement in Yekaterinburg, an industrial center about 900 miles east of Moscow, is still relatively nascent, and only a few elected officials have aligned themselves with Mr. Formanchuk. But in an indication of the repercussions of his case, law enforcement officials called a news conference to defend their performance and to accuse his supporters of inciting the public.

The officials said they were investigating what happened to Mr. Formanchuk, but they denied any police involvement. They said that after he showed up at the station to register his car, he acted belligerently toward officers, and was arrested. In his jail cell, he picked a fight with other detainees, who set on him, the officials said. They said Mr. Formanchuk was a draft dodger with many serious traffic violations. “Mr. Formanchuk is provoking everybody — the organs of state power as well as ordinary citizens, as a result of which Formanchuk was beaten,” said a senior police official, Adam Bogdanovich. “In fact, he is not a law-abiding citizen.” Asked whether the police had meted out revenge, Mr. Bogdanovich said, “Unfortunately, that is not the case.” He then clarified this comment by saying that there was no reason for revenge. While Mr. Formanchuk had filed complaints against the police and then posted them on the Internet, such activities did not influence police conduct, he said.

From the hospital, Mr. Formanchuk said the police charges were ridiculous. He said the conflict began when he tried to use his cellphone to capture video of his interaction with the officers, infuriating them. He said he did not know the identities of those who attacked him, but whether or not they were police officers in plainclothes, it was clear that officers on duty allowed the violence by ignoring his cries for help.

The arrest this month was not the first for Mr. Formanchuk, who was a city bureaucrat until he began working full time with his activist group, the Committee to Protect the Rights of Motorists. Last year, he garnered attention in Yekaterinburg by placing a sign on his Land Rover that resembled a license plate and said “Medved 01,” which means bear in Russian. Officers detained him for the sign — which he said was legal because he had temporary registration and was waiting for a permanent one — and for not addressing many outstanding traffic violations. A judge ruled entirely in his favor, a remarkable verdict in a system that is typically stacked against defendants.

“After my first encounters with the police, I simply myself began to study the law, to read legal literature and court cases,” Mr. Formanchuk said. “And the more that I interacted with police officers, the more I understood that I knew more than them. They can oppose me, but they just don’t know anything. I go out and they stop me. O.K., I say, ‘Why are you stopping me? Let’s take out the law. Let’s look at the legal code. Let’s look at the orders that you need to follow. Let’s read them together. You will understand that you are not acting correctly.’”

Not everyone here approves of Mr. Formanchuk. The chairman of his activist group, Georgy Badyin, said some motorists for a time considered Mr. Formanchuk a showboat who courted controversy with the sign on his car. But Mr. Badyin added that now, people see Mr. Formanchuk in a different light. “It’s not just that the driving public supports Kirill in this situation, but that they oppose the lawlessness of the traffic police, realizing that any one of them could be in Kirill’s place,” Mr. Badyin said.

That seemed to be the feeling on the streets of Yekaterinburg. “Ask any driver, he will tell you many stories about police wrongdoing,” said Roman Belosheykin, owner of a van service. “They do not need a pretext. They say it’s a special action, and then they start making claims. They want money. And it’s that simple.”

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