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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow Gridlock the Cost of Authoritarianism

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Moscow's traffic demonstrates Russia's fundamental problem. Materially, the middle class has grown strong, but a small ruling elite disregards the rest of the population. Karl Marx would have said the economic base has outgrown the political superstructure. Ultimately, Moscow's traffic jams show how badly Russia needs democracy.

For years, Moscow traffic has been getting worse. On the last day of October, it came to a complete stop for six hours, from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. One underlying cause is Russia's impressive economic boom, but many countries have enjoyed annual growth rates of 7 percent or more for a decade and few have suffered as badly. Examples that stand out are Teheran and Lagos during their oil booms in the 1970s and Bangkok in the 1990s.

When I drove in Moscow 20 years ago, congestion was unknown. The normal speed in the city center was 100 kilometers per hour and you could park anywhere. The Soviet Union was not a mass consumption society but an elite one, with cars and roads reserved for those at the top. Moscow had only about 300,000 cars. The masses were relegated to mass transportation in the metro, and even bicycles were prohibited in the city center.

With the introduction of a market economy in 1992, the government abandoned the rationing, strict protectionism and exorbitant taxes that had limited the supply of cars. Muscovites could choose for themselves and they wanted cars, just like everybody else in the world. Today, there are more than 3 million cars in Moscow.

But the government has not adjusted to the new situation. The reason is not economic, but political. As Russia's democratization was never more than partial and now has virtually disappeared altogether, the government serves the elite rather than the people, and the traffic police form a loyal cog in the authoritarian wheel. Their foremost function is to keep the roads clear for top state officials. Traffic lights are often turned off because some official wants to travel freely. Roads can be closed for a couple of hours for President Vladimir Putin. Nobody counts the social or personal costs of the traffic disruptions.

A stark illustration is the morning traffic on Rublyovskoye Shosse. One morning, I drove out of Moscow in the opposite direction of this traffic. Hundreds of privileged vehicles sparred with one another, trying to figure out who had the highest status and what concrete benefits they could extract for themselves in this truly Hobbesian world. The only surprise was that no bodyguards started shooting, but that might come yet.

The catalyst for the October standstill was that many streets had been closed because the Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos visited Moscow, and Putin wanted to move about freely with his guest. A traffic police spokeswoman declared that this is done all over the world, which is not true. In addition, she flatly denied that the case of gridlock had been that bad. Finally, she claimed that the drivers themselves were at fault.

This illustrates the basic problem: Russian police take no responsibility for maintaining order. In a democracy, traffic police are supposed to assist the population by bringing order and reducing traffic deaths. In Russia, by contrast, traffic police care little about speeding, drunk driving and, ultimately, death. Consequently, Russia has one of the highest per capita traffic fatality rates in the world. In the same way, ordinary police do not take the problem of homicide seriously, and Russia's murder rate is also one of the world's highest.

After they have looked after the top officials, traffic police are allowed to enrich themselves through extortion, thus manifesting the superiority of the state over society. A drunken or speeding driver might have to pay a higher bribe than otherwise, but he may then continue his dangerous voyage. Many countries have cameras that record speeding and running red lights objectively. All countries where order prevails have introduced systems by which all fines must be paid via bank transfer or by check and where paying police officers in cash is forbidden.

The continuing widespread extraction of cash payments by police officers demonstrates that the government accepts this corruption, disregarding the lives of ordinary citizens. The old Soviet kleptocracy, which allowed officials to steal as long as the theft was moderate, is kept alive.

Over the last few years, the traffic police force has been renamed and been given huge new resources, but traffic deaths are not declining. On the contrary, they increased by 15 percent from 2000 to 2005, and traffic jams are becoming worse. The attitudes of the traffic police have not changed, not because changing them is too difficult, but as a result of disinterest on the part of officialdom. Many other post-Soviet countries have successfully reformed their traffic police.

One artifact remaining from Soviet times is the police posts at the borders of all regions. They were set up to ensure that unauthorized people, like collective farm workers and foreigners, could not move around the country. They serve no role in a free society, but as long as they persist the police will inevitably use them to indulge in extortion. Several post-Soviet countries have done away with these police posts. In Ukraine, their removal has freed up trade within the country that remains so encumbered in Russia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili drew the logical conclusion and did away with the harmful traffic police altogether.

With the renewed rise of state power in Russia, the number of privileged people with blue lights and escorts has increased to the thousands, and it is foolish to believe that any form of administrative regulation will reduce this. In Ukraine, by contrast, these notorious pseudo-official convoys have almost disappeared for all but the president and the prime minister. The traffic lights are not even all turned off for them, as was the case with President Leonid Kuchma.

Unfortunately, not even an ideal police force could bring order to Moscow's traffic. The whole policy has favored the interests of the elite at the expense of the population. Why does construction block so many roads for so long? Why are illegally parked cars allowed to block both sidewalks and streets? Why have attempts only recently been made to coordinate traffic lights?

The same questions arise regarding investment policy. Why has Moscow so few multi-level crossings? Why are so few parking garages being built? How could anybody build the Manezh shopping center without providing any parking space?

The obvious answer is that the elites do not care about the general population because power comes from the president, not from the people.

Next time you are sitting stuck in Moscow traffic, think about it: Can the Kremlin (forget about the emasculated City Hall) solve Moscow's traffic problems without listening to the people? I doubt it. The ultimate cause of Moscow's horrendous traffic jams is the arrogance of power. A complex, modern society needs the feedback from its population to grow strong. As in a Marxian farce, the new Russian authoritarianism is recreating the mistake of the Soviet Union: It is building a system that is too centralized and rigid to be able to function in a modern society.

Anders Aslund is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.