Out of Russia: Red tape trips up the trippers

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - Thanks to Boris Yeltsin's reforms, Russians no longer have to queue for food. If they have the money, it is there on the shelves for the taking. But the old Russian institution of the queue does not die so easily. This summer Russians are standing for days on end in heaving lines to obtain the papers they need to travel abroad.

Two years ago, when Moscow announced it would scrap the requirement for citizens leaving the country to obtain an exit visa and, from 1 January 1993, would issue everyone with a new passport for free travel, a panic spread in the West that soon waves of immigrants from the broken superpower would start flooding into Europe and beyond. The West should not have worried - good old Russian red tape and incompetence are keeping people trapped here as effectively as ever the Iron Curtain did.

The Russian authorities had 20 months to prepare the new passports but, come January this year, only a fraction of the required number were ready because officials have few computers and still write out most documents by hand. Chaos ensued over the next few months as passport offices were inundated with people wanting to hand in their old Soviet passports and apply for new travel papers. Then, this summer, the overwhelmed bureaucrats decided that it might be simpler to allow people to go abroad using their old passports after all, provided they had a new stamp inside. But by this time thousands of would-be travellers had given in these documents and they had been destroyed. They are now left without passports of any kind.

Western diplomats observing the situation speak politely of 'disarray'. Russians are less inclined to mince their words. 'It is appalling, we are still treated like cattle,' said Olga Kozakova, queuing at the Sevastopolsky district passport office for the second day running simply to get on to a waiting list to be seen by an official. 'I want to go to Germany to visit friends. I am tempted just to give up and go to my dacha instead. But they have got me so mad now that I will wait here to the bitter end.'

Her wait will be long indeed. With hundreds lining up outside each passport office, it takes on average a month to make an application and a further two months, during which the former KGB still makes security checks on the applicant, for the passport to come through. This is a nightmare for Russians who have to travel miles from the provinces to make their applications in Moscow. Of course if you can afford dollars 500, a fortune to most Russians, you can jump the queue and get a passport fast.

The Western embassies treat all applicants equally, regardless of how much money they have, but the wait is tedious. Some 30,000 Russians are waiting for entry visas to Germany, one of the most popular destinations. Britain is a little further away and so less in demand. The British consulate can usually deliver an entry visa to the UK in two weeks.

These days the 'near abroad' or former Soviet republics are also difficult for Russians to enter. And they find it humiliating that now they need an entry visa to visit Estonia, when before all they had to do was hop on the train to Tallinn, where many of them have relatives.

A few people are trying to make life a little more pleasant for the would-be travellers. The German consulate, for example, organises art exhibitions in its visa section to brighten up the atmosphere. But all the Russian authorities have done is to open a special passport office where VIPs such as government officials, Mafia businessmen and sportsmen can get priority service. Sadly, despite the pompous declarations about human rights, East and West still behave very differently towards the ordinary individual.

Once the travellers finally do reach the foreign destination of their dreams they are likely to spend most of their time shopping for bargains which they can bring home and sell for a profit on the new Russian free market. The 'commercial tourists' go to Germany for second- hand cars, to China for silk clothes and to Turkey and Poland for cheap food.

The trip abroad is so hard to organise and its fruits so desirable that the travellers, once on their way, will not turn back for anything. A local newspaper in the northern Russian city of Novgorod reported recently that a coach-load of its townspeople were on their way to Poland when one of the group died of a heart attack. Rather than return and bury the man decently, they propped his body up on the back seat and continued with their shopping spree. The chance was too good to lose and they were sure he would have understood, the travellers said.