First Person - October 20, 1999

Taken for a ride in Moscow

Shaking down tourists brings payoffs for Russian police

by Noah Sachs *95

Last December, I visited Moscow as part of a group of Woodrow Wilson graduate students studying legal reform in Russia. One day I stopped at the Arbat, Moscow's main tourist strip, to shop for matryoshka dolls--the traditional wooden dolls-inside-dolls--at the souvenir stands. I was suddenly tapped on the shoulder by a Russian policeman, who, in broken English, demanded to see my passport and visa.

While I pulled out my documents, two other policemen joined us, both carrying semiautomatic weapons. In Russia, a visa must be stamped by your hotel upon arrival. Despite the hotel's stamp on mine, however, one cop proclaimed, "I'm afraid there is a problem. You have an improper stamp on your visa. You are under arrest. Come to the station."

As they marched me to their police car, I looked around for someone to help me. But the Russians on the crowded street averted their eyes. I was pushed into the back seat, where one policeman joined me, placing his gun on his lap with the barrel toward me. The other two jumped in the front, and we started to drive.

I pleaded. "Why am I being arrested? I am just a student." One of the policemen in the front kept pointing at my visa and shouting "Straff! Straff!" I tried to show him that the hotel stamp on the visa was where it should be, but he just kept pointing and shouting. I implored them to take me to the U.S. embassy to get a translator, but the response was, "No embassy! Station!" I had no idea where the station was and feared that we were going to some remote part of Moscow. Who knows how long they could have held me?

Ten minutes later, still scared and bewildered, I noticed that my surroundings were still familiar, and I realized that we had only been circling the block. When the policemen told me that the station was dangerous and that it would be better for me if I just paid them the fine, the "straff," directly, I understood that this was no arrest, but a shake-down. The "straff" he imposed for my violation was 4,000 rubles, or about $200--not a bad take for the three cops when the average Russian pensioner earns less than $30 a month.

I had $600 on me, most of it in a bdetermined not to hand it over. My anger at these thugs in uniform was supplanting my fear about being arrested, and I was furious that I had become the target of this subversion of law enforcement.

I played dumb, claiming that as a student I didn't have the money. Then I told a half-liethat I was carrying $70, which was what was in my wallet. "Seventy dollars is the penalty for your violation," one policeman promptly declared with no trace of embarrassment. "Pay the straff, and we'll let you go." After a wordless exchange of money for my passport and visa, I got out of the car. I found myself near where I had been picked up. Walking back to my hotel, I chuckled at the irony of being shaken down by the police while on a trip to study legal reform.

Later, I discovered that mine was not an isolated incident. Two other Princeton graduate students had also been similarly arrested, and we learned that such arrests of tourists were becoming more common.

What percentage of Russian police engage in such corruption? It's impossible to say for sure, but an incident in the summer of 1995 sheds light on it. Concerned about police misconduct, Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov decided to conduct a test. He sent out a truck carrying vodka on a trip across southern Russia, and out of the 24 times that police stopped the truck, they demanded bribes 22 times.

If the people who are supposed to be enforcing the law are widely flouting it, then the prospects for legal reform in Russia are grim. As Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it, "Rule-of-law reform will succeed only if it gets at the fundamental problem of leaders who refuse to be ruled by law." The millions spent by the West on Russian legal reform are just a drop in the bucket compared with the major structural changes that need to take place at all levels of Russian government. Ultimately, it is up to the Russians themselves to undertake the difficult task of reforming outmoded, corrupt, Soviet-style legal institutions. The Moscow police force would be a good place to start.

Noah Sachs lives in New York City.


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