Out of Russia: Fleeced by highway robbers in grey

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - Unless he is a real glutton for punishment, I suspect the Dutch lorry driver, Jacob Purggraaf, will be avoiding assignments to Moscow in future.

Last week the hapless Dutchman became embroiled in an extraordinary fracas with the Russian traffic police which began when two men posing as GAI (state auto inspectorate) officers flagged him down late in the evening in the middle of the city and demanded he pay them 100 German marks ( pounds 41). Mr Purggraaf refused and they started smashing the windows of his truck.

Then some real GAI men appeared on the scene but by this time Mr Purggraaf, whose knowledge of Russian is limited, was so distressed and confused that he decided not to speak to them but to drive off as quickly as he could to the nearest Western embassy, which happened to be the United States mission.

'I had no idea who to trust,' Mr Purggraaf said. 'Everything was happening so fast. All I could think of doing was trying to make it to the embassy gate.'

He was pursued by the genuine traffic police who, evidently believing his failure to stop for them meant he was up to no good, began shooting at his tyres with automatic weapons. When the truck pulled up outside the embassy, it was immediately surrounded by three police cars, sirens blaring, and numerous officers brandishing guns.

The police subdued Mr Purggraaf by forcing him to kneel and hitting him in the stomach while the US embassy guards looked on, unable to intervene on his behalf because he is neither a US citizen nor a diplomat. Only the arrival of a Dutch diplomat finally ended the driver's ordeal.

The police later arrested the imposters and said Mr Purggraaf had been the victim of a 'freak incident'. Drivers in Moscow should not worry, they said, because a real GAI officer was always distinguishable by the red, shiny badge on his coat.

The problem, as any experienced Moscow driver will tell you, is that the men in red, shiny badges, while less violent than the bogus police who tormented Mr Purggraaf, are often little better than highwaymen themselves.

The GAI says its job is to keep death off the roads and to some extent it is a necessary organisation, as was shown by another recent incident in which a US diplomat, accused by police of being drunk, ran over a Russian mother and her two daughters, one of whom later died in hospital.

But more often it seems that the grossly overstaffed and deeply discredited GAI exists solely to extract bribes from hapless motorists. No wonder there was, and still is, virtually no unemployment in Russia for at any one time what looks like half the able-bodied male population is out dressed in grey uniforms, standing at every crossroad, waiting for drivers to make tiny mistakes so they can pounce and fine them.

'You don't need a receipt, do you?' is the invariable question and, if you do not have all day to waste, you had better say 'no'.

The GAI officers carry a little black-and-white striped baton that lights up at night. It is called a pozhaluista or 'please stick', but there is no please about it. If one of those is waved at you, you must stop immediately and explain why you were amber gambling, why you turned right when you should have gone straight on or why your front tyre was six inches over the white line.

Even if you think you have done nothing wrong, the traffic police will be sure to find a pretext for the fine, which has now gone up to 2,000 roubles ( pounds 1.30) or a figure plucked out of the air in hard currency if you are a foreigner with a poor command of Russian.

The GAI's latest money-making trick is to fine drivers for having dirty cars. I was caught that way on May Day as I headed for the Communist hardliners' riot, too preoccupied with the political drama to foresee the consequences of setting out with muddy bodywork.

Russians tend to care more lovingly for their cars than other Europeans, either the little Zhigulis (Ladas) for which they have waited years or the BMW and Mercedes limousines that the new generation of businessmen favour. But because they are all macho drivers, it is easy for the police to get them for not wearing their seat belts.

Drivers can sometimes defeat the rapacious traffic cops, however, by using their wits. My ploy - which I put into practice whenever I feel an unofficial toll rather than a deserved fine is being demanded - is to apologise profusely, say I am not carrying any cash and offer my credit card. That always appears to stump them.

Mr friend Nikolai uses another technique. He collects kopecks and one- and three-rouble notes which, because of rampant inflation, are now virtually worthless. When the GAI officer stops him, finds a fault and demands 2,000 roubles, he very slowly digs into one pocket and pulls out a rouble, hunts in another pocket and comes up with a handful of small change, laboriously searches his wallet and produces another three roubles, then starts rummaging down his sock for more money.

He always has the 2,000 roubles on him but it is a rare traffic policeman who has the patience to wait for him to produce the sum in full. It is far more profitable for the GAI man to let him go and flag down some other poor sucker.