MOSCOW — With elections less than a year off, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has found an easy way to give Russia’s car owners a gift that could be worth upward of $1 billion: He did away with auto inspections for the rest of 2011. And the best part of it is that most of the money won’t be coming out of the government’s coffers.
Who’ll pay? The traffic police and employees of the state-controlled company that performs the inspections. Both agencies have the authority to issue certificates, and both have devised inspection routines that are so onerous and unpredictable that cars somehow rarely pass them. Drivers, instead, grease palms — and the certificates magically appear.
It cost $100 to $170 to buy a certificate in Moscow, Sergei Kanaev, head of the grass-roots car owners association, said Thursday. But that was last year. When the government began making noises in January about cracking down on the practice, the cost of a bribe escalated to more than $300, he said. The practice is so ubiquitous that companies have advertised inspection certificates on the Internet.
Depending on age, cars are supposed to pass inspection either every year or every two years. Experts estimate that only about 30 percent of the cars now on the road have cleared inspection and that most of those were presumably brand new — and belonged to owners who were willing to wait hours and hours in line and were too stubborn to succumb to the wiles of the inspectors.
The bribes tend to be lower outside the capital but equally universal. “It’s a huge amount of money,” Kanaev said. It easily dwarfs the $100 million the state collects in inspection fees.
“This should have been done from the very beginning,” he said. “It became possible just because we are in the year before an election. But we are very happy that the prime minister has finally heard us.”
A representative of the traffic police said Thursday that they were not prepared to comment on the decree. At the company that performs the inspections in the capital — the Moscow City Technical Control Service — a person who answered the phone said there was no one in a position to comment, because Mayor Sergei Sobyanin had fired the company’s boss, Igor Klimakov, this month.
Sobyanin said Klimakov had turned the system into a “feed trough.”
A few days later, at his first open news conference, President Dmitry Medvedev said the government was looking at changes to the practice. “If we have this formality, it should make sense and should not be a cumbersome or simply stupid procedure that only complicates everyone’s lives,” he said.
He suggested taking the inspection authority away from the police and essentially giving it to insurance companies.
But while legislation is being drafted to that effect, Putin late Wednesday signed the moratorium on inspections for the rest of the year. He permanently exempted new cars from the inspection requirement. The decree was made public Thursday, and the news lit up Web sites from one end of Russia to the other.
Russians love their cars, and they hate the traffic police — the most visible and annoying embodiment of the arbitrary corruption that pervades the country — with a passion. Bribery and extortion have mushroomed here in all fields, and Russians show signs of finally getting fed up, which is not good news for Putin, Medvedev or the ruling United Russia party. But was this really a blow against the system?
A thoroughly unverifiable rumor that swept Moscow on Thursday held that the traffic police officers were being swatted down because they had gotten too greedy — not in the amount of bribes they demand from drivers, but in the amount of money they have been sending up the line to their superiors.
Of course, Putin’s decree looks good to voters and puts some money in their pockets, for now. But Kanaev wonders whether the change will turn out to be temporary or whether the government will decide to turn over the responsibility for shaking down car owners to more dependable bureaucrats? Sticky-fingered Russian bribe-takers are tenacious; it may take more than a simple decree to sweep them off the streets.