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Payola for Passports Typifies Russia's Predatory Capitalism

August 28, 1995|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — 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.

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