Bribes part of everyday life in Putin's Russia

By Nataliya Vasilyeva

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 24 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

"If an examiner doesn't like you, it's very easy for him to fail you," said Sergei Kanayev, chairman of the Moscow-based Federation of Car Owners.

Veteran driving instructors say applicants are routinely failed over technicalities and that many of their students end up paying despite being competent drivers. In most cases, police officers don't have to ask explicitly for a bribe. Their behavior during the test and advice to "come better prepared" are universally taken as a hint that money will have to be paid.

Kanayev estimates that 50 percent of Russians who fail the driving test end up paying a bribe to get their license. No figures are available largely because of the reluctance of people to admit to having bribed the police.

The traffic police failed to respond to requests for comment over a period of several weeks. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, who commands Russia's police force, last year lauded some regional police officials for eradicating corruption, but acknowledged that it remains a problem in most regions.

Veselova's family and friends have been trying to persuade her to stop wasting time and pay the bribe.

Finding someone to "arrange" a license isn't difficult. Many drivers are happy to pass on the contacts of an intermediary who will make such arrangements, and thus spare the candidate from directly bribing the police officer. The service typically costs from 10,000 to 15,000 rubles ($330 to $500).

Veselova said a friend offered to arrange for her to pass the driving test in exchange for two bottles of cognac, but she couldn't bring herself to do it.

"I'm a believer in God. And this would mean deception," Veselova said. "I'm raising a child. How would I then tell her that she must always be honest and act honestly?"

Newspapers are full of reports of policemen arrested on charges of corruption. Last year, the head of the exams department and five other employees of a police station in Moscow were fired for "issuing driver's licenses for bribes." But the practice continues.

The health care and education systems are also rife with bribery.

For instance, bribes are routinely given to ambulance staff to take patients to better hospitals or to move a patient up on the waiting list for a needed operation. Relatives know that by slipping a few notes to a nurse, they may be able to assure their loved one gets better care.

Public schools are free, but some are more sought-after than others. Parents across Russia complain that directors of desirable schools will state that they are at capacity, then quickly hint that a place might be found if the parents were to make a contribution or donate equipment.

Universities are among the top offenders. One of Russia's most prestigious medical schools, the Pirogov Medical University in Moscow, was rocked by a scandal last summer when it was found to be selling about 500 spots that should have gone for free to those who scored the highest on admission exams.

Putin has responded to the protests by pledging to eliminate incentives for officials to take bribes. But as testament to the growing willingness to challenge Putin authority, bloggers have circulated a list of his vows to fight corruption dating back as far as 2000, none of which has had any notable effect.

"Corruption in Russia is not an isolated problem, but a deep-rooted system," said Georgy Satarov, the head of Indem and one of the leading Russian experts on graft.

After failing to pass the driving test within a three-month period, Veselova had to start the whole process over again. She recently resumed the effort and has again passed the written exam and the parking test.

With the driving test still ahead, she is more determined than ever not to pay a bribe.

"They got me so angry," Veselova said. "We pay our taxes, so why do I have to go and bow down to them?"

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