Russian drivers are bewailing the blues

Flashing car lights allow elite to bypass traffic laws

November 13, 2006|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,Sun Foreign Reporter

MOSCOW -- Viktor Pokhmelkin has what at times can seem like a radical idea in Russia. He believes everyone should be treated equally before the law.

To that end, the independent lawmaker in the State Duma is seeking to rid the nation of one of the most widely despised symbols of Russia's government and business elite: a blue light and siren atop vehicle roofs that effectively makes road rules optional.

About 7,500 lights, or migalki, are used on Russia's roads, many in the traffic-clogged capital, where getting anywhere fast is impossible without one - and at times even with one.

President Vladimir V. Putin is entitled to a migalka, as are high-ranking government officials and corporate VIPs, including the chairman of the gas giant Gazprom.

Scores of other people buy the lights on the black market, paying thousands of dollars.

Pokhmelkin's proposal, which allows lights only for emergency vehicles, has died in the legislature every year since it was introduced in 2003. But seizing on an issue that's a sure populist winner, Putin recently proposed reducing the number of migalki - to 1,000.

"One thousand is better than 7,000," conceded Pokhmelkin, who campaigns for drivers' rights. "But zero is better than anything else."

Russians rue the migalka - a kind of modern-day equivalent to the stores where Communist Party officials bought food, clothing, furniture and whatever else they needed - for everything it stands for. It's often atop a dark car with dark windows that zips around the roads, purportedly in the name of fulfilling "an urgent official matter." High speed is a given. Weaving across dividing lines is a necessity. Even driving in the path of oncoming traffic is not unheard of.

Previous efforts to crack down on migalki use have languished. And some are skeptical of the Kremlin's most recent attempt - considering it a ploy to win favor before next year's parliamentary elections.

The ruling United Russia party, which supports the president's every proposal, immediately supported this one. State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov made a point of being seen handing in his light. However, he travels with an escort from the Federal Guard Service, which use blue lights.

Valery Zubov, another independent Duma lawmaker who co-wrote a bill that would limit the number of migalki to eight, accused several United Russia politicians of grandstanding before the TV cameras.

"They publicly removed the lights from their cars, but in fact they keep using them," said Zubov, declining to name who reinstalled them.

A few lawmakers, including Vice Speaker Lyudmila Sliska, of United Russia, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party faction, were more honest about the matter: They said, "Thank you very much, but we prefer to keep ours." And they did.

Zubov's bill would allow only the president, prime minister, general prosecutor, chief judges of the nation's three highest courts and speakers of the two chambers of parliament to use the lights.

"You can control eight people," said Zubov, who declined to use a migalka while he served as governor of Siberia's Krasnoyarsk region. "You cannot control 7,000, 8,000 cars."

In an interview with the newspaper Argumenti i Fakti, one member of the traffic police, who also break road rules when there seems to be no reason to do so, said migalki users often behave like "hooligans" on the road. "It's outside our competence to know when they are really heading for an important assignment or going home to sleep," he said.

Cars equipped with flashing lights, which many times aren't even turned on, violate road rules an estimated 1,500 times a week, according to the traffic department. Traffic police have the right to stop them but generally choose not to.

Siberian railroad worker Oleg Shcherbinsky was sentenced to four years of hard labor in February for failing to yield to one such car that was carrying the governor of the Altai region, Mikhail Yevdokimov. The governor's car, said to have been traveling at least 90 mph, sideswiped Shcherbinsky's car while trying to pass it. The Mercedes smashed into a tree, killing the governor, his driver and a bodyguard.

Motorists in as many as 18 cities protested the verdict, causing jams and disruptions. Some affixed blue buckets to their car roofs mimicking the migalki; others held signs that said "We're all Shcherbinskys."

An appeals court later overturned the conviction.

Maxim Pavlyuchenkov, a 27-year-old computer programmer from St. Petersburg, is on a crusade to catch reckless drivers - and not just ones with blue lights. He and his wife Yekaterina installed a video camera in their Opel, aimed out the passenger-side windshield, which allows him to catch motorists in the act.

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