Russia's hated traffic police set for an overhaul

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The Independent Online
IT IS a selling job that would stretch the spinning skills of the slickest international advertising agency. Russia is trying to overhaul the image of the nation's most hated official - the traffic policeman.

The newly appointed Interior Minister, Sergei Stepashin, has embarked on a mission to clean up the profoundly corrupt GAI, the State Automobile Inspectorate, whose portly, swift-fingered, cops have come to symbolise official venality in the eyes of many Russians.

He has launched a public relations campaign to eradicate the force's widespread reputation as little more than a club for licensed highway robbers, and to adorn it with a "human face".

Thus, later today the GAI's most senior officer, Vladimir Fedorov, will spend several hours answering questions and complaints telephoned in by the readers of the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.

The GAI's paramilitary iron-grey uniforms are being replaced with new outfits whose cheerful colours - bright lemon in some cases - will shine out against the monotonic hues of the Russian winter or a summer downpour. And the number of women in the force is being increased.

Nor is that all. The organisation is also likely to have a new name. Tacitly acknowledging that, to Russian ears, "GAI" (pronounced Guy-ee) has about as many positive connotations as the word "Mafia", officials have come up with a solemn, mouth-cluttering acronym: GIBDD - State Inspectorate for the Safety of Road Traffic.

The task facing Mr Stepashin and his aides is formidable. The force founded under Stalin in 1936 as an offshoot of the NKVD security apparatus is universally loathed and for good reason. Though far from angelic behind a wheel, Russia's motorists are continuously harassed by GAI officers, who do not need any reason in order to flag them down. It is not uncommon for a driver in Moscow to be pulled over several times in one journey by officers, known as "gaishniki", who stand at most big junctions.

Bribery is not so much the exception as the rule. The average traffic policeman receives a mere $120 (pounds 75) a month - and that's often paid late. Back-handers, as in many areas of Russian life, have become a form of income supplement.

Motorists often reinforce the practice, as they would rather pay bribes than go through the time-consuming process of recovering confiscated papers. So widespread is corruption that some drivers no longer bother acquiring licences or documents, preferring to slip a bundle of roubles to any officer who is lucky enough to catch them.

The police's notoriety has spawned both its own micro- industry, china figures of traffic cops waving their batons have appeared in the shops. Stories abound of the GAI's skulduggery - from the officer who was harried off the streets of Moscow by his colleagues because he tried to be honest, to the cop who pulled over a car, announced he was tired of inventing reasons for imposing fines, but demanded a pay-off anyway.

Nor is the general level of fear and loathing helped by the occasional appearance on the streets of conmen wearing police uniforms who flag down vehicles for imaginary offences and pocket the proceeds. Although official efforts to clean up the force have so far failed, the authorities have not ignored the problem. The force's spokesman said yesterday that last year prosecutions were brought against 4,000 GAI employees, of whom more than half work on the streets. Of these, 470 were later fired.

The statistics are only the tip of an iceberg. It is hardly surprising, then, that Russians are less than optimistic that the clean-up will work. "Only time will tell," said the newspaper Kommersant earlier this month, "But, for now, the idea of a GAI with a human face belongs to the realms of fantasy".