KHANKALA BASE, RUSSIA — The price of getting a story often makes journalists inveterate hagglers.
Our skills are honed almost daily with taxi drivers, and local guides routinely demand exorbitant fees for safe passage through bandit- or guerrilla-held territory.
But a recent trip to Chechnya, as "guests" of the Russian Army, devolved into its own survival test of negotiating skills.
In Moscow, our group of 12 journalists had agreed to pay 30,450 rubles ($1,100) to "rent" military helicopters for the trip. It was the final price - or so we thought.
Almost anywhere else in the world, journalists travel free with military units. But Russian forces - once a formidable cold-war adversary - are so cash-strapped these days that we agreed to ante up about $90 each to cover Russian costs.
The money was duly deposited in a Russian military account at a civilian bank.
But after arriving in a neighboring republic just outside Chechnya, we got our first taste of things to come: a military driver taking us to the helipad took up a collection - 50 rubles each (about $2) - to pay for gas.
In Chechnya, it is Chechen warlords and their gangs that have the reputation for roaming the breakaway Russian republic - kidnapping, extorting, and blackmailing at will. But as the impoverished Russian military bogs down in its fight against the Chechen "bandits" and "terrorists," the troops rarely see a paycheck, and are themselves quick studies of the local forms of banditry.
Military units are involved in a vast looting spree of Chechnya's oil, metals, and other assets, says a recent report by the pro-Moscow Chechen administration, that was detailed in The Moscow Times.
"The stealing of the republic is in full swing," it notes, including the wholesale ripping off of oil company pipes and the stealing of re-installed power lines.
State auditors in Moscow also say that senior finance and economic development officials have siphoned off millions in reconstruction aid meant for Chechnya.
After landing, we discovered that our Russian hosts, too, were preparing for some petty larceny.
"Unfortunately, we've got some bad news," said Vice-Col. Constantine Glukharenko, greeting us at Russia's main base of Khankala, a sea of mud and snow-swept military misery 10 miles east of the destroyed Chechen capital, Grozny.
"We got an order that, beginning from now, the price of the helicopter has gone up. There is a bank near here," he said, nodding helpfully toward an unlikely cluster of weather-beaten canvas tents.
A groan welled up from our party - especially among the Russian journalists, who immediately smelled a swindle. A previous promise to take us on a rare visit to Grozny seemed to be in the balance - if we didn't pay, we wouldn't go. The total cost had soared to $2,949.
"Even Aeroflot [which operates in the red] lets you fly on the price you bought the ticket," protested one photographer. "It's Russia," explained another. "They couldn't just add 5 percent more - they had to charge three times as much!"
A decision was put off until morning, and Colonel Glukharenko half-heartedly promised to take up our case with Gen. Valery Baranov, commander of joint Russian forces in Chechnya.
Russia, defeated by guerrillas in the first 1994-96 Chechen war, withdrew its troops and granted self-rule. But it returned in September 1999. The result of the current stalemate has brought more frustration - and looting.
"This war won't end, let me tell you," a soldier called Alec privately confides. "The main reason for this war is money. The commanders enrich themselves, so why should they stop?"
Any cash our group paid here, he said, "goes to the camp commanders, for sure."
The next morning after breakfast - 36 rubles ($1.30) for food per day, please - Glukharenko was in a sour mood. Our "insolence" was a problem, he said, peering through thick glasses and still wearing his slippers at the door of his tent-office. He had "never seen such an ungrateful group."
Therefore, General Baranov now insisted that we not only pay for the helicopters, but also rental of the armored personnel carriers in Grozny - the intricately calculated wear-and-tear those vehicles would receive, and the cost of the special forces guard that would go with us.
"Baranov can do anything, and he personally ordered you to pay," the colonel said. "You have to pay everything."
Even for the graft-familiar Russians, this was met with an anxious gulp. To make our decision easier, the colonel presented us with a printed calculation of the helicopter fee, titled "Grounds for new payment, Order No. 9/3/919/91." Unlike any other official document in Russia that deals with money, which is invariably pasted with innumerable stamps and signatures, this letter had one pathetic scrawl at the bottom, the signature of an unknown vice colonel.
"Someone invented this!" protested one journalist.
"If you want a seal, we can put a seal on it in 10 minutes and make it look official," Glukharenko said. Several hours of steadfast protest put off a final decision again, until after the visit to Grozny.
Upon return, the battle of wills continued. Negotiations dragged on until darkness fell. The armored vehicle cost was set at 4,460 rubles, or $161 for the group. We said we'd pay - but not for the helicopters.
"You are detaining us, we're hostages!" shouted one Russian journalist, who had played this game before.
Late that night, word came that the commander wanted to apologize for the "moral abuse," Glukharenko said, and we could fly back without emptying our pockets.
"Money, money, money," sang a relieved Russian journalist, to the tune of the Abba song, "makes the world go round." Even in Chechnya.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society