For Russians, Car Wreck Is A Case Study In Privilege

Vyacheslav Lysakov, right, heads a group that organized a rally in Moscow to protest the jailing of a man involved in a traffic accident.
Vyacheslav Lysakov, right, heads a group that organized a rally in Moscow to protest the jailing of a man involved in a traffic accident. (By Volodya Alexandrov For The Washington Post)
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 13, 2006

BIISK, Russia -- The imprisonment of a man who was involved in a traffic accident that killed one of Russia's best-known politicians triggered protests across the country this weekend, especially among motorists who view the jailing as a chilling failure of the courts to protect average citizens from vengeful authorities.

Outraged supporters of Oleg Shcherbinsky, a railway worker whose car was hit from behind last summer by a speeding car carrying the Altai region's governor, rallied Saturday and Sunday in 22 Russian cities, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok in the Far East. Shcherbinsky was convicted at a closed trial this month and sentenced to four years in a labor colony.

"For the people in power, we are all nobodies," said Alexander Kiryanov, a 33-year-old railway worker from Shcherbinsky's home village outside Biisk. "After this story, how can anyone believe in justice for the people?"

Nowhere is the privilege -- and abuse -- of power more visible to ordinary Russians than on the roads, where politicians and bureaucrats, who have special license plates and blue lights for their luxury vehicles, speed recklessly, force other drivers aside and generally flout the rules. At the same time, ordinary citizens are subject to constant harassment from traffic police, who routinely demand small bribes. These irritants have become the source of open anger because many motorists can easily imagine themselves suffering Shcherbinsky's fate.

"We have a caste system on our roads: The elite who do what they want and everybody else who is supposed to get out of their way," said Vyacheslav Lysakov, head of a motorists' club in Moscow that organized Sunday's rally in the city. "Those who have power should observe the law and only then demand that everyone else do it."

The crash occurred on a beautiful morning Aug. 7 in the Altai region of Siberia. Shcherbinsky, 36, his wife and 12-year-old daughter, along with a neighbor and her son, were heading to a lake for a picnic. Gov. Mikhail Yevdokimov, 48, was on his way to the birthday celebration for a Soviet cosmonaut who hailed from a nearby village. His wife sat beside him in the back seat. Up front were his official driver and a bodyguard.

Both cars were traveling north on the road from Biisk to Barnaul, the regional capital. The road, which is generally straight but hilly, was quiet that morning. There was no oncoming traffic as Shcherbinsky started to make a left turn, according to court records.

The governor's Mercedes was passing another car and had crossed over the center line when it crested a hill outside Biisk. Shcherbinsky, driving a Toyota, was about 300 yards farther down the two-lane road. He was slowing, turn signal on, and easing into the turn, according to court records and testimony.

Yevdokimov's driver began to brake about 80 yards from the point of impact, but it was too late. The Mercedes hit the left side of the Toyota and became airborne, then slammed into a birch tree.

Yevdokimov, a former actor and comedian who was labeled the "Schwarzenegger of Siberia" after he became governor of the Altai region in 2004, was killed instantly, as were his driver and bodyguard. Yevdokimov's wife was seriously injured. None of the five people in Shcherbinsky's car was injured.

Shcherbinsky testified that he never saw or heard the car coming from behind. A witness testified that the Mercedes never used its horn or siren, although it did have a blue light on its roof. Investigators told the court that the Mercedes's speed was at least 93 mph; defense lawyers said it was probably closer to 125 mph.

"I remember a strong blow and then another car flying," said Svetlana Shcherbinskaya, Oleg's wife, who was sitting in the front passenger seat.

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