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Notes from the underworld at Moscow taxi line

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MOSCOW -- Visitors who have finally made it through customs at Moscow's international airport are channeled toward a narrow doorway that opens to their first encounter with organized crime, Russian-style.

Two lines of black-leather-jacketed men press in from either side, forming a sort of human chute. They are taxi drivers.

They lean in close, seeking likely-looking fares among the emerging passengers, still disoriented by the scruffiness, the noise, the dim lighting and the apparent chaos of the airport known as Sheremetyevo-2.

"Taxi? Taxi?"

Overwhelming, insistent, they seem to be everywhere. But the appearance of disorder is deceiving.

The airport taxi drivers form one of the mafias that flourish in Russia today. They are a band -- of bandits, some would say -- with their own rules, their own hierarchy, their own sense of honor.

At meetings arranged through an intermediary, Leonid, a former airport driver, offered a unique glimpse of the inner workings of a criminal trade. His account was later largely corroborated by current drivers and by other airport workers.

The drivers work for hard currency, which is not quite legal, and they keep outsiders on the outside -- through organization, bribery and intimidation.

The payoff is a standard fare of $20 to the center of Moscow -- the equivalent of about two months' salary for a typical Russian.

The airport taxi mafia is more venerable than most, but mafias today are a central fact of Russian economic life. Russians everywhere complain about them -- about the mafia that controls their local market, or the one that runs the private restaurants, or that deals in jewelry or precious metals or flowers or bricks.

Much of what they do would be legal in other countries. But as Russia hobbles painfully toward a normal market system, the government today is ill-equipped either to compete with or to regulate the mafias.

And they provide services that would otherwise not exist.

If it weren't for the Sheremetyevo mafia, well, you could always take the bus -- just wait over there, where that huge line is slowly turning to stone in the snowy darkness.

There are 300 drivers at Sheremetyevo, most of them using their own cars rather than official taxis. They are divided into three ranks, and each rank has its own turf on the floor of the arrival hall.

The most senior drivers, naturally, are clustered right at customs. Many have established such good relations with steady customers that they work only on call.

Typically, Leonid said, they have as much as 35 years' experience as drivers.

Many drive Volvos or BMWs.

When a foreigner arrives as a guest of an official Russian agency, and the agency has neglected to meet him or tell him where he will be staying -- which happens every day -- one of these senior drivers will be able to take him in hand and find him a room.

Behind this elite group stand the regulars, and toward the center of the hall are the newcomers.

The drivers all belong to a collective, which has a license to deal in hard currency. It's a sham. Legally, the drivers would have to turn over their earnings to the collective, and draw pay in rubles. They don't.

But by working through the collective, they can control who drives, which is crucial. Only members of the collective are allowed inside Sheremetyevo, a privilege maintained through bribery. The only way to join the collective, Leonid said, is through the age-old method: by having an uncle or a father who is already a member.

And even then, new drivers have to go through up to two years of general hazing -- minor damage to their cars, tricks, general harassment -- before they're fully accepted.

"It's just to see if they're tough enough," Leonid explained.

Drivers need to be tough because of two sets of enemies.

First are the free-lancers who hang around outside the arrival hall. If any of them dares to enter the building, he will be persuaded -- at knifepoint, if necessary -- to leave.

The indoor drivers all vehemently insist that these free-lancers out on the sidewalk are a bunch of common criminals. The robberies, assaults and murders of airport passengers that are reported from time to time are all committed by the outsiders, they say.

The members of the collective pay off the traffic police so they can park close to the airport building. The outsiders need to park in more distant lots.

"The farther the car, the worse the man," goes the saying.

The second set of enemies are the various criminal gangs that have occasionally tried to collect protection money from the drivers. Sometimes the solidarity of the drivers is enough to fend them off. Sometimes a knife or a pistol does the trick. In 1990, the drivers had to hire one criminal gang to drive off another.

One gang, composed of Chechens, an ethnic group from the northern Caucasus, failed to intimidate the drivers but did manage to put the arm on the car rental firms at the airport, Leonid said.

The police, Leonid said, are less of a problem than they used to be, and the size of their bribes has actually gone down -- because what the drivers are doing is much closer to being legal than it once was. Generally, he said, a food basket once a month or so is sufficient to keep the cops in line.

The drivers come from various "clans," based on where they live, but they nevertheless form a tightly knit gang overall. They police themselves through regular meetings -- in a clearing in the woods, just 300 yards or so from the airport.

"It's very democratic -- everybody shouts at once," said Leonid. But the senior drivers call the shots.

The drivers insist that they won't abuse their passengers (beyond charging two months' salary for a 45-minute ride). Any driver who cheats a passenger or drops one off in the middle of nowhere is sure to be punished, Leonid said.

How does word of the misdeed get back to the collective? "Everybody knows everything that goes on here," he said. "There are no secrets."

A woman named Anna, who works at a travel bureau in the airport, tells of a driver who recently took a passenger's money into a hotel to change it into rubles, and helped himself to an unacceptably large commission.

The customer complained to the hotel, the hotel manager immediately called one of the senior drivers out at the airport, and the next day the miscreant returned the money. Then he was expelled from the collective.

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