Corrupt cops ignite Russian ire

The Baltimore Sun

YEKATERINBURG, Russia -- Kirill Formanchuk, like almost everyone who drives in Russia, was used to being pulled over by the police and cited for seemingly trumped-up infractions.

Yet instead of resigning himself to paying a bribe, he turned traffic stops into roadside tribunals, interrogating officers about their grasp of the law, recording the events and filing formal complaints about them.

There are 28 million cars now, three to four times more than at the end of communism in 1991, experts estimate.

More cars mean more opportunities for the police to solicit bribes, in the view of motorists' groups. The corruption also emboldens people to drive recklessly because they know they can skirt penalties by slipping money to an officer. (The typical bribe is $5 to $20.)

Formanchuk has became a leader of a budding movement to uphold motorists' rights in the face of police corruption, making him a not-unfamiliar face when he went to a police station here two weeks ago to register his car. He was soon thereafter in the hospital with severe injuries from a beating.

The resulting outcry in Yekaterinburg has caused an unexpected burst of civic activism across the country at a time when such sentiments appeared to have otherwise waned. Motorists' groups have held demonstrations against the police in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg. Even national television networks, which are under Kremlin control and tend to ignore news that reflects poorly on the government, have begun to focus on what happened to Formanchuk on the night of Oct. 12 in an isolated jail cell.

Formanchuk has become a symbol for Russians who contend that the police are poorly educated, badly trained and allowed to operate with impunity.

"Everyone understands that this can happen to them, too," Formanchuk, 24, said in an interview at a hospital in Yekaterinburg, where he is to remain for at least a month with brain and skull injuries.

The motorist movement in Yekaterinburg, an industrial center about 900 miles east of Moscow, is still relatively nascent. But in a sign of the repercussions of his case, law enforcement officials called a news conference to defend their performance and to accuse his supporters of inciting the public.

Formanchuk's crusade resonates with many. "Ask any driver - he will tell you many stories about police wrongdoing," said Roman Belosheykin, owner of a van service. "They do not need a pretext. They say it's a special action, and then they start making claims. They want money. And it's that simple."

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