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Bribery: Tradition with a twist


MOSCOW -- Need a business license? Try giving a nice six-place china set to a municipal clerk. For one recent applicant, was the necessary creative touch.

Hoping to dodge the draft on your 18th birthday? An $800 doctor's office visit will buy you a bad case of asthma. Because in Russia, bribery is a way of life.

Tips or gifts will buy a place at the head of the motor vehicle registration line. They will gain a willing ear from apartment landlords; they will secure a child's place in a sought-after public school piano class. For the cost-conscious, Moscow newspapers list the going rates for whatever ostensibly free government service you may need.

"Bribery is a very old Russian tradition," observes Konstantin Zuyev, a philosopher at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "It's illegal from a formal point of view but totally legal in public opinion.

"In the Soviet era, money wasn't exchanged -- it was the right kind of cognac or shoes. And it wasn't so directly and openly done as now."

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the growth of a stratum of "beeznessmen," the million-dollar sums of big-time bribery have become regular fodder for headlines. Last month, the renowned Korov Ballet gained unwanted attention because of the arrests of its director and its chief choreographer for allegedly taking bribes to arrange foreign tours of the company. St. Petersburg police alleged that bribes taken over several years amounted to "millions of dollars."

But it is the smaller, matter-of-fact payments that allow government workers to buy their daily bread, and maybe a little extra.

There is the case of the GAI, the national traffic police who are posted at every major intersection. They prowl lines of backed-up traffic or step into the midst of fast-moving cars and point their baton at an offending driver.

For every driver who is stopped, a member of the GAI collects a few dollars worth of fines. And the officers are universally believed to pocket much of what they collect.

An experiment in August by Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov helped confirm everyone's suspicions. An undercover ministry official was dispatched as a truck driver on a 500-mile trip. He stopped at 24 checkpoints. At 22 of them, GAI officers took bribes.

Crime reporter Maxim Glikin wrote in Obshaya Gazeta about an officer who earns the bulk of his income at what the man described as his "part-time job": He stands in his uniform on a street, flags down trucks and asks $10 for imaginary traffic offenses. In his real job, he has no authority to stop drivers.

L "I understand him," says Mr. Glikin. "He has to earn money."

Indeed, there is a strange dichotomy in the way bribery is viewed: While bribery is accepted as the easiest way to make life bearable, it is also despised. The GAI officer, for example, is as likely to be seen as a corrupt money-grubber as a poor breadwinner trying to make ends meet.

"I consider bribes bilateral support -- it's payment for a service," says a young entrepreneur who can be called Fyodr, because in exchange for talking about the etiquette of bribery he asked that his real name not be used. His livelihood is based on paying bribes on behalf of clients needing licenses, official registrations -- whatever is required to conduct business.

As he tells his story over lunch in a restaurant, a waiter asks him to accept a fake receipt for his meal; if Fyodr will accept the receipt, the waiter -- through some unorthodox bookkeeping -- can pocket the cash he received from someone else for another meal.

"Without my service, it would take about a month and a half to go through the process of getting a business license," Fyodr says. "There would be difficulties -- a lot of documents would be returned to you for a missing comma. You'd stand in huge lines."

So for about $1,000 -- half of which is sprinkled around officialdom, the other half kept by Fyodr -- he can obtain in about one day a license to sell fruit on the street. He will obtain an altogether proper document blandly noting that a "voluntary obligation" -- a bribe -- has been paid and a license hereby issued.

In Soviet times, bribery was primarily done with and for consumer goods that were in short supply -- perfume and chocolates were among the favorites. Now, consumer goods are readily available. But few people have the money to buy them.

Some government workers are paid as little as $20 a month in salary. But their jobs may put them in position to ease the grueling bureaucratic processes for others. For a price, of course.

After spending a whole day at the motor vehicles registration office, one Moscow driver could not help but notice the lack of forward movement: He had been fifth in line at the beginning of the day, and he was fifth in line at the end of the day. Then he became savvy.

The next day, he caught the eye of a clerk on his way to the bathroom. For a $300 bribe, in addition to the $250 registration fee, he was issued plates and registration within an hour.

"It's important that you never offer money right away," says Konstantin, an 18-year-old economics student who is more than casually familiar with the unwritten rules.

"You need to talk, to make [the bribe taker] like you as a person, so he doesn't treat the bribe as a bribe. But rather as the reward for a good deed he did for a friend."

He is a caricature of the extremes of capitalism. His blue blazer and rep tie are Main Street; the holstered pistol at his waist is American mob. He saved for a year and a half for the $800 bribe he paid for a doctor to certify him unfit for military service.

Did he have to bribe anyone to be able to legally carry the pistol?

"No, not at all," he says. "Just a bottle."

Fyodr has been practicing longer than Konstantin. The china set for the municipal clerk, for example, was Fyodr's innovation.

He cautions his assistants to dress modestly; bad shoes are considered especially important. The poorer they look, he says, the less they will have to pay.

As for the set of china, it was a form of flattery to hand over the box, he says.

In what is apparently a familiar script, the clerk asked him, "Why? Why? Why? I don't need this."

"The key phrase," says Fyodr, "is to say, 'You may need it in the future.' "

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