Russians resist braking for blue-light big shots

Middle-class drivers are protesting to halt the spread of officials with flashing lights and right-of-way privileges.

In most countries, only emergency vehicles, such as ambulances and fire engines, enjoy the heady power to exceed speed limits, run red lights, move against traffic, and compel other drivers to yield.

But in Russia, an estimated 5,000 officials and, reportedly, many wealthy businessmen, now sport a blue flashing light with siren on their cars - the migalka - that entitles them to make up their own road rules.

The practice has existed at least since Soviet times, but is only now being challenged by a small but determined grass-roots coalition of angry motorists. Some observers see the protest as a sign of an emerging middle class willing to take on Russia's elite. They want this special privilege cancelled for everyone except, maybe, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The unequal relationship between Russian citizens and their state can be seen most vividly on the roads," says Vyacheslav Lisakov, head of the Free Choice Motorists' Movement, which has about 5,000 members nationwide. "There are basically two castes in our society, one of which is totally outside the law. The rest of us have no choice but to defer to them, and swallow our humiliation."

The movement was kick-started earlier this year by the case of Oleg Shcherbinsky, a Siberian railway worker who was sentenced to four years in jail for "failing to yield" to a limousine carrying Altai regional governor Mikhail Yevdokimov. Mr. Shcherbinsky told the court he never saw the governor's car, which sideswiped him from behind at high speed while he was making a left turn, then crashed, killing Mr. Yevdokimov.

Hundreds of motorists, organized through the Internet by Mr. Lisakov's group, staged protest rallies around Russia. A month later, another court acquitted Shcherbinsky. "That was a victory for civil society," says Lisakov. "If we hadn't demonstrated, I've no doubt Shcherbinsky would still be rotting in prison."

Previous civic protest movements, such as pensioners, have taken to the streets over issues such as loss of state benefits. "This is more interesting, because motorists are middle-class people who are protesting not as a vulnerable group but as active citizens," says Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent Duma deputy and author of a draft law - unlikely to pass in the Kremlin-dominated legislature - that would sharply curb use of the migalka. "What they want is equality before the law, and that's something new in Russia," he says.

When President Putin is in town, the entire 30-kilometer (18.5 mile) route from his Novo Ogaryovo dacha to the Kremlin is closed twice daily so his eight-car cortege can race through the city at speeds of up to 200 k.p.h. (124 m.p.h.). Former President Boris Yeltsin, who lives in a compound near Razdori, also enjoys the right to shut down entire road networks when he makes his occasional forays into Moscow.

Many drivers say they fume at the enforced waiting, but don't begrudge Putin his due. "I'm a realist," says Lisakov. "The mentality in Russia is that the president should never have to stop for a traffic light."

But the number of lesser officials with migalka rights has ballooned from just 30 in 1994 to more than 5,000 today in Moscow alone, say experts. Some Moscow thoroughfares now have a special reserved center lane where VIPs simply sail past traffic jams. But on some roads they often just charge down the middle, forcing other drivers onto the shoulders. "The way they drive makes everyone indignant, and it creates a very dangerous situation on the roads," says Mr. Ryzhkov.

About 30 state agencies, including the Kremlin, the Duma, and the Central Bank, have the ability to issue the migalka to their top staff. But experts say many wealthy Russians illegally purchase the needed credentials.

"We know there's a price list for different levels of road privilege," says Yury Geiko, a commentator with Avtoradio, a Moscow radio station. According to Itogi, a weekly newsmagazine, a migalka can be had for about $25,000, but full privileges cost as much as $200,000. "The most expensive is called a predpisaniye, and it's a document that forbids police to even poke their noses inside your car," says Mr. Geiko.

Lisakov says he'll keep protesting on behalf of 30 million Russian motorists. "It's only when officials have to stand in traffic jams themselves that they'll begin to think seriously about improving things," he says.

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