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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Free to Travel Abroad? Not Yet

Long lines and delays of two to six months for new Russian passports are spawning a thriving black market here and making travel abroad nearly as inaccessible to the average Russian as it was in the Communist era.


Illegally purchased passports can be obtained in as little as a day with nothing more than a phone call to a travel agent or to a number in a newspaper classified ad, but prices range from $75 to $600 - far beyond the means of most Russians. The official price is 8, 500 rubles (about $8).


But obtaining a passport the legal way is considerably more complex, leaving many despairing of their dreams to take advantage of post-communist-era travel freedoms.


At Moscow's northeast passport office No. 3, Mikhail Rezhnikov said Wednesday that he missed a trip to Hungary in March because the passport he had obtained in September, issued by the Foreign Ministry, was no longer valid because the Interior Ministry had taken over issuing passports.


"The man who invented this should be shot", he said angrily waving his passport issued in 1992. "This was supposed to be good until 1996".


Now he said he visits the passport office once a week waiting to see if his name has advanced on the list of hundreds of passport seekers.


The office on the ground floor of a grim apartment building is note-worthy for its lack of computers or even typewriters. Workers in overcrowded rooms glue in passport pictures by hand.


Once Rezhnikov's name reaches the top of the list, he will have the opportunity to fill out the forms for a new passport. Then he will have to wait again - another two months or so - to get the new document.


"Perhaps in the wintertime I will finally get to go to Hungary", Rezhnikov said bitterly.


With such stories becoming the norm, business in black-market passports is booming.


Border guards at Moscow's Sheremetyevo-2 Airport said Wednesday that they confiscate 40 to 50 suspect Russian passports every day.


The root of the problem springs from a combination of inefficient government bureaucracy and a deluge of Russians hoping to travel.


The number of passports issued nationwide is expected to almost triple this year from the 3. 5 million distributed in 1992, according to the Interior Ministry.


"The flood of applicants has created a bottleneck, and the ministry is sometimes unable to issue the passports within one month as required by law", the ministry said in a statement last week.


The Russian parliament responded this week by issuing a decree giving a second ministry power to issue passports. The decree, if approved by the government, would change a previous law that went into effect in February shifting passport control from the Foreign Ministry to the Interior Ministry. The Foreign Ministry would continue issuing passports until next June to help break the backlog.


For those with hard currency, it is easy to buy a passport in Moscow. Classified advertisements in newspapers like Komsomolskaya Pravda and Vechernyaya Moskva politely - but illegally - offer to "help with visas and passports".


Valentin Sevryukov, a Moscow University economics student planning a trip to Switzerland for a July seminar, said he chose to get his passport through an alternative service.


"I gave my travel agent $100 and I got a passport in a couple of days", he said. "It's completely official".


The Russian Justice Ministry said that the penalty for knowingly using a fraudulent passport is one year in prison and two years for producing fraudulent documents.


But many passports obtained through such advertised services are, in fact, legal, the Interior Ministry said, as the acquisition would involve personal contacts in the passport service.


The difference between the Interior Ministry's new passport and the Foreign Ministry's old one is negligible. The new Russian Federation passports still say U. S. S. R. on the cover, the only difference being a slightly different numerical code.


The entire process has drawn virulent criticism from the Russian press, with one columnist bitterly saying that Russia today is no freer than the Soviet Union was. Passport applicants today still have to undergo a background check by the former KGB to verify that they are not criminals and possess no state secrets.


In the past, however, they had to negotiate an even more complex web of restrictions. In many cases a doctor's certificate was needed stating they had no venereal diseases and had never been a psychiatric patient. An official invitation was needed from the country of destination complete with an authorized translation. Sometimes permission signatures from local Communist Party officers, employers and trade union leaders were needed.


Although the new Interior Ministry passports state they are valid for five years, Sevryukov said he feared that the passport application process would begin again with the adoption of a new constitution and coat of arms.


"As soon as they make the eagle the symbol of Russia I will have to apply again", Sevryukov said. "Then I will have to pay another $100".