Hungry Bureaucrats

If you want to design a system to encourage venality, here's a sure formula. First, pass an extremely complicated set of laws that are impossible to obey. Next, make the laws ambiguous, so that you are never sure that you're on the right side of the legal system (this is a very old Russian tradition). By making it impossible to follow the rules, officials can use their discretion to always find you guilty of something if they wish. If no one can be sure they are within the law, they will always be vulnerable to prosecution and blackmail. Next, hire hoards of bureaucrats each with too little do -- but give them vast discretion and citizens little means for appeal. Finally, pay them pathetic salaries so that they will look for "income supplements". The result is Russian bureaucracy in all of its venal colorations.

Every society has government officials citizens love to hate. In the USA, the Internal Revenue Service traditionally served this role -- mostly because they have the dirty but necessary job of taking people's money. In Russia and (most of the former USSR for that matter), the prize for most despised bureaucrats goes to the GAI, or the State Auto Inspectorate. Dressed in black jumpsuits and armed with AK-47 assault rifles, they stand at intersections and around blind curves waiting to nail miscreants for such crimes as stopping, turning and accelerating. A friend of mine was pulled over because he was thinking about making a right turn on red. It was the first time I saw anyone detained for a thoughtcrime.

When the GAI grab a victim, they point their black and white striped batons at the offender, blow their whistles violently, and motion wildly for the driver to pull over. It's almost like being called out in a baseball game with, "You're out" replaced by "You're busted". The encounter then always goes like this: They salute, identify themselves and then tell you what heinous thing you did wrong. At this point the driver faces a choice of whether to pay them off or go through the system. The honest way was miserable. First you go to their GAI-mobile and sit in the front seat as they laboriously take down every detail conceivable ("grandmother's maiden name?"...). I suspected that the wait was to give you more time to reconsider your ill-advised honesty. Then they take away your license and give you a receipt. To get it back you need to go the local police station.

Before reclaiming you license at the station, you first must go to Sberbank, the infamously bureaucratic state bank and wait on several lines to pay. Slow service, long lines and short hours summarize the experience well. Then you go to wrong police station where you wait forever to try to figure out the location of the right one. When you get to the right police station, you wait again for up to several hours between breakfast breaks, lunch breaks, and "I'm lazy breaks" to show proof of payment to eventually collect your license. Of course, this assumes that you can find the right place to collect your license and that the person in charge was not busy hanging out elsewhere with his friends. At best, the process can take several hours -- no wonder people just pay on the spot "fines" that don't really cost any more.

Most infractions cost around US $1.50 (at the time 40 rubles) to fix. Typical crimes include speeding and not having a technical inspection sticker, which means that you car has passed Russia's lofty safety standards. Of course, many Russians buy calendars that look just like the inspection stickers and hope that the GAI donít see the difference as they zoom by. However, because the fine was larger for having a fake sticker than have none at all, people became quite proficient at pulling them off quickly as they stop for the GAI. For a couple years, it was cheaper to pay the fine than pass the inspection. The bribes to pass inspection often cost $100 regardless of the car's condition. That's a lot of tickets.

Note: This is only a partial excerpt of the book, which is available on request.  I will be adding photos to this page in the near future.

Book Inquries

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