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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clampdown On Driver’s Licenses Riles Expats

The only thing Dutch couple Reinoud Broekhuijsen and Margreet ter Woerds wanted to do one lazy Saturday afternoon was to get to their dacha outside of Moscow in the car they’ve had for four years, using the international driving permits they’ve used ever since they came to Russia.

But the traffic inspector who stopped their car on Taganskaya Ploshchad had other ideas. He accused the two journalists of driving without a license and impounded their car, offering only a terse explanation that "international driving permits are not valid in Russia anymore."

Many in the Moscow expat community have had similar experiences. Irene Commeau, director of the European Business Center, and Wolfgang Stopper of the German Business Association in Moscow said many of their members have had their cars impounded because they did not have a Russian driver’s license.

"Some got so alarmed they simply quit driving," Stopper said.

Most of the cars that were impounded, they said, had yellow license plates, clearly marking their drivers as foreign journalists or business people. Expatriates also drive cars with white plates; those cars should be registered in the name of a Russian citizen, who gives the foreigner a document allowing him to drive.

Police would not say how many cars have been impounded from foreign drivers for not having valid licenses, but said the action is within the law.

The days of Russian road cosmopolitanism officially ended Jan. 1, when a government decree came into effect limiting the use of international driving permits to "participants in international traffic" — which for months was interpreted to mean only those driving cars registered outside of Russia.

"Anybody driving a car registered here should have a Russian driver’s license," said Dmitry Kirillov, deputy head of the department in charge of driver’s licenses at the state traffic police, or GIBDD.

The interpretation of the decree has since been expanded to allow foreigners driving cars with yellow plates and red diplomatic plates to use their international driver’s licenses for up to one year after entering the country. But those driving cars with white plates still need a Russian license.

To get a license, foreigners need to pass the Russian written driving exam. The exam can be taken at one place only — the traffic inspectorate for foreigners in the Tsaritsyno district on the very southern edge of the city. Materials to prepare for the exam can be bought in kiosks all over town, and according to those who have done it, it takes many hours even for someone with good Russian to plow through the booklets.

The exam is only in Russian and consists of 20 questions to be answered on a computer — most of them on traffic rules but some on first aid or the mechanics of the car. Only two mistakes are allowed, the duty officer at Tsaritsyno said by telephone.

Tom Adshead, an analyst at Troika Dialog brokerage, failed on the first attempt and passed on the second. "It’s much more difficult than the test I took when I got my driving license in New Zealand," he said. "Half of it is the stuff you should know as a driver, another 25 percent is unnecessary details, and the final 25 percent is you repeating the things authors of the handbooks think might be right but are not necessarily so."

To be able to take the exam, foreigners must submit a thick file of documents: their passport and a copy of the passport; a registered visa and a copy of it; a notarized translation of their driver’s license; one photo, 4 centimeters by 6 centimeters; and a medical certificate.

Some prefer to skip the test and get their Russian license on the black market, which is said to cost anywhere from $100 to $400.

Others manage to negotiate a "fine" every time they’re stopped, the amount of which depends solely on the personal chemistry between the driver and the traffic policeman. Such fines are not part of the administrative code, which provides only for the impounding of vehicles whose drivers do not have a valid license.

"I got stopped quite a few times already and managed to get by paying a fine," said Jason Gondo, manager at the Embassy Club, who drives on a notarized translation of his American license. "It’s much simpler that way."

The Jan. 1 decree — which was published in Rossiiskaya Gazeta but not widely publicized — is technically a violation of the UN convention on international road traffic, said Bruce Bean from the Moscow office of law firm Clifford Chance Puender.

The UN convention, which Russia signed, stipulates that signatories should allow any driver admitted to their territories to "drive on its roads without further examination motor vehicles coming within the categories for which the permit has been issued" but for "no more than a continuous period of one year."

Under the Russian Constitution, international agreements signed by Russia have priority over Russian law should the two contradict.

The European Business Center pointed out these discrepancies in a letter sent in late May to Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko asking the government about the large number of car impoundings.

The EBC said the government responded July 7 with "additional explanations," effectively expanding the definition of "international traffic" to all cars with yellow or red plates, which can now be driven with international driver’s licenses for up to one year.

"Since most of our members have to leave the country once a year anyway to prolong their visas, for us, the problem is solved," Commeau said.

Kirillov of the GIBDD confirmed that the new "explanations" are now in place.

But all foreigners driving cars with white plates still must get a Russian license. And for the time being, they cannot even count on the six-month grace period that was allowed under the previous law.

But Kirillov acknowledged that demanding that someone who has just arrived in Russia to pass the written test may be a little unfair. "We are aware of this problem and are considering the possibilities of changes," he said. "Maybe we will soon once again prolong the grace period to six months."