Citizens of the late Soviet Union, with the biting black humor that was their birthright, had a saying: “You may have the right, but you still can’t do it.”
In the new Russia, a land of vibrant but often predatory capitalism, folk wisdom now has it: “You may have the right, but it’ll cost you.”
Nowhere are the laws of the new Russian marketplace more transparent--or the cozy and unquestioned relationships between business and the bureaucracy starker--than in the booming market for passports.
For the first time since the Soviet restrictions on travel were lifted in 1989, millions of ordinary Russians can afford their long-suppressed dreams of seeing the Eiffel Tower, sunning on a Cyprus beach or even shopping in Manhattan.
But first, they need passports.
Either they can stand in line for hours or days at the passport agency, run a gantlet of surly clerks and then wait for as many as three months to receive their travel document.
Or they can pay one of the new companies that promise to get a passport for them, hassle-free.
The companies are not shy about advertising their services. Prices range from $280 for delivery within two weeks to $1,000 for a same-day passport.
How do the companies get the documents so quickly? They bribe officials in the passport agency, according to police Capt. Mikhail P. Pashkin, who has been trying to get the authorities to crack down on such corruption.
Pashkin, head of the police officers trade union, says the peddlers pay off not only passport clerks but also officials in records departments of four different law enforcement agencies, including the former KGB, the old Soviet security police.
The agencies must certify that an applicant has no criminal charges pending against him or her and does not have access to vital state secrets--a process that ordinarily takes at least two weeks.
Like so many other forms of payola now routine in Russia, this bribery is an open secret that appears not to trouble Russian officialdom.
“This is an issue of secondary importance,” Vitaly M. Ryabov, a department chief in the Moscow Prosecutor’s Office, replied when asked whether any action had been taken against the bureaucrats involved.
“Of course it’s a problem,” he said, “but we have so many of them. They sell pornography and university diplomas too, but are these real problems?”
Likewise, those involved in passport-selling do not consider it corruption. A woman named Maria who works in a private passport company defended the practice, saying her firm doesn’t pay government clerks to break the law or steal from the state, only to work faster.
“There is nothing criminal here,” Maria said. “For service, one has to pay extra. That’s natural. That’s capitalism.”
“That is a bribe,” a senior law enforcement official declared, opening a copy of the Russian criminal code and insisting that the crime is punishable by as many as 10 years in prison.
“It’s gigantic money,” the official said, asking not to be quoted by name.
According to Pashkin, at least six criminal cases have been filed in the past three years against officials accused of passport-related bribery--but all have been dropped on the orders of unknown higher-ups.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Pashkin’s charges are unfounded and aimed purely at discrediting the ministry, which issues the passports. Asked, however, whether any ministry officials have been arrested in connection with passport irregularities, the spokesman said he did not know.
Ordinary passports are not the only documents for sale. Rank-and-file citizens blessed with guts, with baksy (Russian slang for “bucks,” or U.S. dollars) or with good connections are turning up with diplomatic passports that accord the bearer VIP treatment at passport control and customs in Russia and abroad.
“In principle, nothing is impossible in Russia if you pay good money,” the senior law enforcement official said with a shrug.
At the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, employees have noticed a number of cases in which Russians whose visa applications had been rejected have shown up a few days later brandishing new diplomatic passports--and have become very huffy when they are again denied a visa.
The documents appear to be valid, not forged. “We have a problem with it, especially if the person has been denied a visa just a few days or weeks earlier,” a consular employee said.
People with well-placed friends apparently can even get diplomatic passports for free. A 30-year-old gasoline tycoon, for example, displayed his new diplomatic passport and said it was a gift from officials of the Republic of Kalmykia, one of Russia’s constituent regions, for his help in setting up a trade office in Moscow.
The system of exit controls proved expensive for Tanya, a businesswoman who paid $80 for a passport two years ago. Tanya traveled to Thailand, Turkey and other destinations for a year--until she was stopped at passport control on her way to one vacation and told that her passport was a forgery and she could not leave Russia.
The passport was confiscated, and Tanya lost the money she paid for her airline tickets and hotels. Chastened and in need of a new passport, she went through official channels--except for a $10 bribe to cut to the front of the endless line at the passport office.
The notion that one must pay a bribe to make headway through an interminable line of supplicants has also bred a big business in companies that “sell” visas to Western countries.
The number of Russians traveling abroad has more than doubled in recent years, from 4.2 million in 1992 to 9.1 million last year. The most popular destinations are Estonia, Lithuania, Turkey, Latvia, China and Germany.
But Russians complain that they are often treated as undesirables when applying for visas and that Western consulates here cannot cope with the increased demand.
Enter the visa companies, which earlier this month were offering to get visas for travel to Germany for $230 to $300. Three companies promised to snag hard-to-get multiple-entry visas to the United States for as much as $1,600.
After a spate of bad publicity last year, the U.S. Embassy streamlined its visa procedures, and most applicants now get a visa or a rejection in a single day. The line forms at 6:30 a.m., but scalpers allow tourists to cut in for a fee. Last year, the embassy issued 87,482 visas, and so far this year it has issued 82,097.
The German Consulate General is a study in misery. Visa applicants travel from all over Russia and stand in line for days. Service hours are erratic, the clerks are nasty, and the only way applicants can find out if their visas or rejections are ready is to go to the consulate and wait. Last year, the consulate issued 170,000 visas, and it expects to issue even more this year.
“They are exactly like our bureaucrats,” Yelena Nigiyan said, complaining about the slowness of the visa procedure. She applied for her visa in May and has gone back once a week to find out whether it is ready. The 30-year-old schoolteacher said she cannot afford to pay a visa company to get the document--and wouldn’t even if she had the money.
“I won’t pay on principle,” Nigiyan said. “First of all, it’s illegal. . . . And then, why should someone else make money off my back?”
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From Russia in Droves
Russian travelers are venturing abroad in unprecedented numbers.
Russian foreign travelers
1992: 4.2 million
1994: 9.1 million
Most popular destinations
Germany issued 170,000 visas for Russian travelers last year, and expects to hand out even more this year, an consulate spokesman said.
Year: Number issued
Sources: Russian State Statistics Committee, German Consulate General, U.S. Embassy