Traffic Police Reflect Russia's Value System

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My cousin once took her husband, a New York City narcotics detective, to her native Moscow. Late one night, as they chatted with friends on a boulevard, her husband took a walk to a nearby bush to answer the call of nature. There, he was promptly detained by a group of three police officers.

Seeing that he was a foreigner, they demanded a sizeable bribe. My cousin, acting as a translator, explained that he was a cop and that his ponytail, beard and tattoos were a disguise for his undercover work. When he produced his badge, the Russians recognized him as a brother officer and wanted to shake hands with him.

He refused. "I didn't want to have anything to do with them," he explains. "They're corrupt bribe-takers."

My Russian friends no longer shake their heads in disbelief at this story. They have traveled enough to know that cops in civilized countries don't shake down citizens. Nevertheless, this knowledge does not alter their behavior at home. Casually settling a traffic violation with a bribe remains a normal part of everyday life in Russia, scarcely worth mentioning.

Very few Russians are alert to the implications of what pervasive bribery does to them individually and what it means to society.

First, bribery is a felony for both participants, the one who pays and the one who takes a bribe. Casual law breaking perpetuates the twisted system of relative morality that was imposed on Russia by the Communist regime. Just as the Soviet state proclaimed that moral taboos against stealing, lying, killing, etc. were obsolete bourgeois precepts and that true morality is class-based, when Soviet citizens stole from the state, they were never considered even remotely unethical.

Most governments in the world are highly sensitive about police corruption. My cousin's policeman husband says he "dreams of being offered a bribe." But he is being facetious, of course, because he would never take a bribe under any circumstances. In fact, zero-tolerance for corruption is ingrained within the New York Police Department, which goes out of its way to encourage its officers to turn in those who try to corrupt them.

Bribe taking is only part of the problem. Russian police effectively work for themselves, not the government. They don't care if they allow a drunk to keep driving as long as he pays them, which doubtless contributes to the carnage on Russian roads. Likewise, unregistered foreigners are free to walk the streets as long as they have enough money to pay off the cops.

The government has not only failed to root out police corruption, but its rules, regulations and laws seem designed to find new ways for cops to stuff their pockets rather then do the job for which they were ostensibly hired. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, for example, recently proposed registration for bicycles -- a great way for traffic cops to fleece a new group of people using the roads.

Clearly, the modus operandi of the Russian police is the rule rather than the exception in the way the state functions. There are, no doubt, dedicated and honest doctors, teachers and government officials, but they are rare. Those Russians who pay a few hundred dollars to a police officer when they are stopped for drunk driving should realize that the way roads are policed by cops is also the way their kids are taught at school and their loved ones are cared for in hospitals. It is also how fire inspectors inspect buildings, how construction workers build bridges and how the glorious military protects the country.

Is there any surprise, then, that those who run the government seem to view it as their private domain and use their positions of power to enrich themselves and their cronies rather than think of the good of the nation?

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.