MOSCOW — Sergei Meshcherinov was more than happy to slip $50 to an overworked government secretary to get his housing registration changed in a day instead of a month.
Grigory Tsvetkov was equally unruffled by the $400 charged by friends and relatives of federal customs service agents to spare him five days of waiting in line to receive the used car he imported.
Real estate agent Sergei Zlotnikov is so familiar with the cost of speeding up the state documentation for apartment sales that the $200 charge for one-day transactions is factored into his fee.
Under-the-table encouragements long have been the grease in the gears of Russian bureaucracy. But in the go-go, gotta-get-ahead atmosphere now prevailing, they no longer are considered bribes as much as the cost of doing business. In a new twist on tradition, buying a way out of inconvenience is an increasingly open, legitimate option now called "express service."
Russia is suddenly bustling with businesses that cut through red tape. From obtaining scarce subsidized railway tickets to having a phone installed to arranging for car insurance or a foreign visa, consumers now have the option of getting it done--pronto.
"Time is money. If you want to save time, you have to spend money," Zlotnikov says matter-of-factly, trying to remember how long it has been since a seller chose to economize and brave the official channels.
While consumers and suppliers alike tend to applaud the advent of express service as an ingenious adjustment to what is arguably the most inefficient state bureaucracy in the world, there is--as always in Russia--a lot of cloud around the silver lining. The private companies popping up to run interference for those who can afford it are inevitably taking advantage of personal connections in the state agencies responsible for providing social services, from driver's licensing to draft exemption.
Insider deals to clear official bottlenecks might be morally open to question and probably would be considered abuse of office in many countries. But in a society as accustomed as this one to the back channel, there is little public complaining.
On the contrary, Russian consumers often hail the express charges as a step along the road to making government more responsive.
"This is Russia! It is how we do things here!" Meshcherinov says, unmoved by a suggestion that state bureaucrats are actually being bribed to do their jobs. "This is a plus for everyone. I get my document, and the person providing it to me gets real payment for his work."
Indeed, the official salaries for workers in state registries are pathetically low, providing both the motivation and justification for creating services to work around them. What bothers the fledgling consumer protection services taking shape in Russia is that those offering the solution are also usually part of the problem.
Take Sasha, an auto emissions and safety testing officer. He spends seven hours a day, Monday through Friday, inspecting private cars for the state certification needed for annual registration and insurance. At the state inspectorate, a car owner must line up three hours before the 8 a.m. opening to have any hope of getting Sasha or his colleagues to look at a vehicle before closing time. The official charge is about $5 and a lost day of work.
But after hours, Sasha becomes a private businessman, though still in uniform and carrying his office seals and stamps. For $120, he will provide technical certification for a car owner by appointment and in the comfort of the consumer's driveway.
"All of these so-called services should not be looked at in the same light," says Valery Stolyar, a lawyer with the Moscow Consumer Council. "Some are legitimate measures to cover the cost of doing business, while others are just outright ploys to get bribes."
Express service for official documents--like land titles, birth certificates and bills of sale--often are legitimate charges for the extra work necessary to satisfy the request faster than usual, Stolyar says.
Zlotnikov's Condor Agency pays the Moscow Department of Municipal Housing $200 for a certificate verifying apartment ownership within 24 hours. Otherwise, he says, it takes up to a month.
But those who are exploiting their positions in what amount to state monopolies hardly can be considered to be supplying a service to the community, Stolyar says.
Despite the expanding appearance of both legitimate and exploitative express services, the consumer council hears few complaints about them because most customers either get what they pay for or realize they lack legal recourse if they get swindled.
"Everyone knows about these practices and those who can afford to pay for them do so," Stolyar explains. "Otherwise, a person has to take on the whole system. It has always worked this way in Russia, at least for the last 30 or 40 years. State workers' salaries don't depend on the quality or quantity of services rendered, so express services have emerged to fill the void."