Bribery is a growth industry in Russia Average Russians not scandalized

September 02, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Bribes are so common here that many people walk around with the prices in their heads, the way an American would know how much it costs to buy a newspaper or a gallon of gas.

Price lists are even published in the newspaper. Recent articles reported on the cost of a passport granted in a timely fashion ($200) and a speedy registration of a joint venture business ($500 to $2,000).

Against such a landscape, the lurid tales of Swiss bank accounts, murder plots, missing millions and other corruption that high-level government officials have been telling about each other over the last few weeks have created little sense of scandal among the average Russian.

"What other kind of government could we have?" asked Natalya Anatolyevna, a 28-year-old Muscovite who can rattle off a litany of bribes she has had to pay over the last month.

Seventy years of communism, she said, had marked government officials and private citizens alike.

Communism, Russians point out patiently to the untutored foreigner, was a system of distribution rather than one of buying and selling.

There was never enough to go around. And the strict hierarchy of party and privilege made everyone dependent on someone else. So while everyone might have the right, for example, to a decent apartment, each person had to find his own way to exercise that right.

A bottle of vodka used to be the basic currency. That might get a repairman to show up to fix your toilet -- for which you would then pay him. You could buy a ticket for an airplane, but to get on the flight (instead of waiting at the airport for a few days) a tube of lipstick might prove handy.

Now that the economy has been freed of artificial restraints, so has bribery. Money talks, especially dollars.

Enormous changes

And the enormous changes under way across Russia have created new growth industries for bribe-takers. Natalya Anatolyevna, for example, estimates she has spent about $1,000 in bribes to privatize her apartment, sell it and buy a new one.

Natalya (who wanted to be identified only by her first name and patronymic) can little afford such an enormous amount of money. The average salary here is no more than $50 a month.

Her husband, an army officer, was developing a business trading in cigarettes. In the course of this work he was murdered -- either because someone wanted to take over his business or because someone owed him money and didn't want to pay.

He left behind a small cache of money with which Natalya hopes to lay the groundwork for a decent life for herself and her 5-year-old daughter. She desperately wants a decent home for herself and her daughter -- a goal she could only achieve with bribes.

Communal apartment

Natalya, her husband and daughter lived in one room, about 12 feet by 10 feet, in a communal apartment. The three of them ate, slept and lived there, with room for a foldout couch, a chair, a bookcase, a cupboard and a television.

They shared a small bathroom and kitchen with two other families. A well-off buyer who wanted to turn the three single rooms into one apartment offered to pay $65,000 for the apartment if all three families would sell. They agreed, and the dishing out of bribes began.

Natalya, whose share was $17,000, found a two-room apartment in another building for $36,000. First she had to arrange for an estimate of the value of the room she was selling. Rather than wait three or four months, she paid a bribe of 50,000 rubles -- about $50. Rather than endure another wait for the estimator to actually see the room, she paid another 10,000 rubles.

Then she paid a 60,000 ruble bribe to have the room officially privatized. She could have paid 2,000 rubles and waited a couple of months.

Although she and her neighbors could have waited for months without paying bribes, they risked having the deal fall through. They quickly discovered they had made a smart investment. Two days after they privatized their rooms -- necessary to sell them -- the government declared it illegal to privatize communal apartments.

The official reason was that speculators were preying on the elderly and throwing them out -- homeless -- on the streets. Some of the more cynical thought otherwise -- perhaps a new opportunity for bribes had been created.

To get the sale papers notarized, Natalya paid $200. Otherwise, she would have had to wait in line for months, regularly checking her place in line at the notary office.

Notarizing the purchase agreement for her new apartment cost $100.

For one of Natalya's neighbors, every penny was worth it. With the money from their room, Valentina Ivanovna and her husband paid $19,000 and their car for a one-room apartment upstairs -- with its own kitchen and bathroom.

An indescribable joy bursts across Valentina's face when she shows the sparkling clean room with its foldout bed, table and bookcase to a visitor. "I'm 42 years old, and this is the first time I've had an apartment of my own," she said.

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