#14 - JRL 7269
FEATURE - Wealth, status often overrule Russia's highway code
July 30, 2003
By Andrei Shukshin
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia has a highway code, but if you are rich or powerful, you can toss the book out of the window of your speeding car.
As in any country, the law says any vehicle on a main road -- a humble one like a Soviet-made Lada, too -- has right of way, even if a smart Mercedes approaches from a side street.
But in today's Russia, wealth and status often prevail.
"The traffic code stipulates clearly that the Lada has right of way," said Alexei, a young traffic policeman.
After a split-second hesitation, he added: "But if you are talking about real life, it is, of course, for the driver to decide. It's no secret that it may be better to let the big car go, especially if it has tinted windows and gadgets showing there may be a bandit or government official inside."
That view, ignored at one's peril, reflects much of the reality of Russia's roads -- and to some extent Russian life.
Westerners on Moscow's clogged streets notice most Russians sneer at orderly driving and that traffic patterns defy logic.
It may fall short of the chaos of Istanbul or Hanoi. But good manners earn no respect from seasoned drivers, who ignore road markings, pass in Formula One style and honk instantly at anyone failing to hit the gas the second a light turns green.
Appeals to Russians to stop speeding, stop drinking and drive in reasonable fashion generally fall on deaf ears.
Yet, there is method of sorts to this madness.
An expensive foreign make or a vehicle bearing government plates is usually seen by the owner and, in the latter case, by police, as an invariable license to barge ahead regardless.
"I always steer clear of big Mercedes and BMWs," said Yelena, at the wheel of an Oka, Russia's answer to the Mini. "They simply ignore you, so it is better to stay away to avoid being 'unwittingly' pushed off the road."
After 70 years of egalitarian ideology in the Soviet Union, a new breed of nouveaux riches emerged and has greedily scooped up any available status symbols.
How better to flaunt wealth than a car costing more than an average Russian's lifetime earnings? Never mind what state your apartment might be in or whether you can afford upkeep on the vehicle.
"These are very good cars in their own right but nobody buys them as a means of getting about," said Igor Shevchuk, a dealer selling top German models.
"This is all about showing off. For themselves, Russians tend to order the most expensive model with all the extras."
Soaring oil revenues and an improving economy have created a monied class in Moscow and a "flashier-than-thou" competition among officials, businessmen and criminal gangs linked to them.
"I drive like mad because I am mad," Giya, a stout Georgian sporting gold chains and a ruby-studded cross, said as he emerged from a black 4x4 with pitch-dark windows.
"Everybody knows that if I can afford this car I can afford to drive it as I wish. And my people will know that I mean something in this world and will treat me accordingly."
Those not quick or wise enough to tell the difference sometimes learn the hard way.
In a typical incident which secured media exposure because a foreigner was involved, a British diplomat was dragged from his car and beaten for failing to make way for a swankier vehicle.
While an expensive car can buy resentful respect from less fortunate drivers, it is a number plate linked to a government institution that hoists the owner into another league.
Impenetrable to outsiders, letters and digits on plates reveal everything within seconds to traffic police.
AAA means a car from the special service providing guards for top officials, including President Vladimir Putin. AOO, BOO or MOO plates on the outside indicate officials from Putin's administration are sitting behind the tinted glass.
AMP makes any policeman stand to attention; an interior ministry boss is driving by. XKX, they say, means secret police.
Ubiquitous traffic wardens, who routinely hand out heavy fines with no receipt for even minor violations, have no right in practice to stop such cars, no matter how they are driven.
On the contrary, police often disrupt common traffic to leave a corridor free for them to pass. Many city-center streets have a special middle lane for use by official cars.
On one occasion, Putin's bodyguards were required to check a Mercedes carrying AAA plates to determine they were fake. No policeman had dared intervene.
Asked why he did not flag down a car sailing through a red light, a policeman shrugged: "It had 'tricky' plates and seemed in a hurry. God knows, perhaps it was going to the Kremlin."
Vladimir Fyodorov, Moscow's long-serving traffic police chief, said before leaving the job last year that "special cars" -- usually equipped with flashing lights, sirens and a horn sounding like a bear growl -- did not seriously impede traffic.
"But they do create a lot of negative emotion among other drivers," he said.