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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Moscow Dress Code Gives the Crooks Away

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Being a dumb foreigner can carry a high price. When I lived in Budapest a couple of years ago, the U.S. Embassy posted a warning about a local scam that went like this: A shady character approaches a tourist on the street offering to change money. Of course, the visitor knows better and refuses. Moments later, a couple of "undercover cops" wielding official-looking IDs -- bus passes, perhaps -- appear. To ascertain that the tourist has not just changed money on the black market, the phony policemen demand to see his wallet to make sure all his cash is still there. By the time the swindlers have left, it most certainly is not.

If there's anything reassuring about this far-fetched Magyar ruse, it's that the villains are no more than crooks posing as policemen. In Moscow, however, it is crooked policemen who carry out the most common scam against foreigners: collecting "fines" for imaginary visa infractions.

Bent cops may be an inevitable feature of any police force. But here "the few bad apples" define the law enforcement system. The biggest hazard for foreigners visiting Red Square is having their pockets picked not by petty criminals but by a couple of thugs in uniform.

There must be few other places in the world that would tolerate such a state of affairs. In Turkey, a special tourist police exists to assist visitors. When I visited Izmir this summer, the tourist information office closest to my hotel was actually a police post, where a congenial old cop handed me all the maps I needed.

Newcomers to Moscow give me quizzical looks when I warn them about the police. Westerners are seldom the victims of the worst abuses -- harassment, beatings and robbery -- which Moscow's finest mete out on just about any former Soviet citizen whose face they don't like.

Paltry wages clearly play a big role in fueling corruption. But even significant pay raises are unlikely to root out the culture of corruption that has become synonymous with the civil service. Why should anything change as long as the rule of law exists only in earnestly delivered presidential speeches?

Paying a bribe is more than a mere annoyance to foreign visitors; it is a threat to national security.

President Vladimir Putin has correctly identified corruption as a key factor in terrorism. But giving law enforcement agencies even greater powers is hardly the way to solve the problem. Corruption will only grow and the bribes get bigger.

Under those conditions, little distinguishes a band of Hungarian hustlers from Russian ruffians, except that in Moscow the crooks often wear uniforms to work. It's not everywhere they make themselves so easily recognizable.

Lucian Kim is deputy business editor of The Moscow Times.