MOSCOW DAYS : No short-cuts by taxi to a civilised society

Russians use the word almost obsessively, relating to their hopes and fears for their country. They use it more now, perhaps, than ever before. Other languages have a similar word, with a similar meaning. But nobody talks of tsivilizovanny - ''civilised'' - as much as the Russians do.

In the old days, in private, Russians contrasted their country's situation with life in "civilised" countries. In the perestroika years, the word was used in public for the first time. Now, tsivilizovanny has become a universal touchstone: in the mouths of politicians, in advertising slogans and on the street. In pessimistic mood, in optimistic mood, or with deep resentment, Russians compare their own situation to that of the distant, tsivilizovanny world. Life in a "civilised" Russia is seen as a tantalising dream.

In a sense, it represents the agenda. I started writing this column in the Metro on Thursday night, on the way to visit friends I had not seen for a while. Their first question, once we got on to politics: "What do you think, then? Are we becoming a tsivilizovanny country? Or will it all go badly wrong?" I had been planning to ask them the same question.

"Civilised" is, on the face of it, a strange word for Russians to use so wistfully. How can the country that produced Pushkin, Chekhov, Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky not be "civilised''? The classical writers have always been revered here, too, in a way almost unthinkable in the West.

But this is a different kind of "civilised". In the Russian context, tsivilizovanny has little to do with arts, science or standards of education. Nor is it the opposite of "barbaric". Instead, it perhaps translates as what most Westerners would think of as "normality" - a country that more or less works.

"Normality" comes in all shapes and sizes. The English-language Moscow Times recently bemoaned the lack of taxis that can be hailed on the street, for a legally fixed price. Former Communist countries throughout Eastern Europe have succeeded in setting up the simple, tried-and-tested system: you flag down a taxi and pay at your destination. In Russia, moves are being made, theoretically, in that direction. In reality, such a simple transaction is still the stuff of fantasy. Anarchy rules.

Equally, persuading traffic policemen to behave in a tsivilizovanny manner - where they do not concentrate all their energies on soliciting bribes - currently looks as likely as the prospect of Boris Yeltsin saying nyet to another vodka.

There are hints, it must be said, of tsivilizovanny life. In Moscow these days you can find restaurants and cafes where the waiters display a self- confident courtesy.

None of this, though, is of much use to ordinary Russians. For them, a different kind of tsivilizovanny life is urgently needed. Four years ago today, a bunch of mad Communists tried to put history into reverse with the Soviet coup. Since the collapse of the Communist regime, Russians have moved from the Soviet-era political rip-off to the post-Soviet economic rip-off.

In the West we take for granted that, as consumers, we have rights. We don't expect to be robbed. If we buy a faulty piece of equipment, we can take it back to the shop - and not expect to have to pick a fight. In Russia such failures are still taken for granted.

A tsivilizovanny Russia could, perhaps, be defined as one where "market economy" is no longer a synonym for "theft". Sometimes, it seems that such an idyllic prospect may be beckoning, over the horizon. And sometimes, not.

Yesterday, it emerged that VAZ, the car factory producing the Lada, has produced a set of guidelines whose main purpose apparently is to outwit a law on consumer rights.

As the Tass news agency noted: "Until now, VAZ has suffered very much from consumers demanding compensation for material and moral damage for low-quality motor cars." Tragic, really. If only VAZ did not have to cope with troublesome customers, life would be much easier.