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Russia May Pay for Bribes in Lives

After alleged payoffs in passenger jet and school tragedies, corruption has a more sinister air.

November 08, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — The two young women showed up at the airline ticket counter without reservations, but in Russia, this is hardly an insurmountable hurdle.

They pressed about $175 into a ticket scalper's hand. He passed on $30 to an airline agent, who held up the 9:35 p.m. flight to the Black Sea resort town of Sochi so that Satsita Dzhebir- khanova could rush aboard.

Her friend, Amanta Nagayeva, was less lucky. The 9:20 p.m. flight she had hoped to take to Volgograd, in central Russia, had already left. She began nervously demanding to get on the next plane, wherever it was going.

Don't worry, the scalper told her, if she wanted to go to Volgograd, she would go to Volgograd. Nagayeva -- and the bomb she was apparently carrying -- boarded the next flight, at 10:20 p.m.

Both planes exploded within nine seconds of each other, at 10:53 p.m. on Aug. 24, killing all 90 people aboard.

In Russia, boarding a fully booked flight costs only a little more than boarding an available flight. Speeding down Moscow's Garden Ring can be negotiated with the traffic police for $35. Canceling a tax audit of your business -- or launching one on your competitor -- costs $30,000. Driving through a police checkpoint in the war-torn republic of Chechnya costs $2.

Corruption is a daily routine in Russia, but no longer is it regarded as a mostly victimless crime.

Suspicions that law enforcement corruption played a role in recent terrorist attacks -- including the Sept. 1 school seizure in Beslan, where some witnesses said heavily armed terrorists crossed a police checkpoint -- have prompted a new look at the relationship between graft and violence in today's Russia.

"The problem of combating corruption has moved to a new level in this country," said Yelena Panfilova, head of the Russian branch of Transparency International, which monitors corruption around the world. "After the events in August and September ... corruption has turned into a problem of survival for every individual, every day in this country."

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin underscored the problem a day after the Beslan tragedy, when he blamed the country's weakness for a siege that left 340 people dead. "We have allowed corruption to undermine our judicial and law enforcement system," he said.

Hostages at the school in the republic of North Ossetia said the attackers told them they had easily reached the school by bribing police along the way.

"The terrorists said, 'Remember, all your officials are mendacious and corrupt -- we paid all of them,' " former hostage Ludmila Boyeva recalled. The hostage-takers said they had originally planned to take hostages in the larger town of Vladikavkaz, several miles from Beslan, she said, "but they didn't have enough money."

"It was all about money," said Svetlana Cherepovskaya, editor of Beslan's weekly newspaper, Zhizn Pravoberezhya, who lost her 14-year-old daughter in the tragedy. "How can you account for the fact that this group drove in broad daylight through a traffic control checkpoint? And some people are saying there was a cop escorting the rebels, who showed them the way. People said they saw him later at the police station, with a facial wound. He was under arrest."

Last week, prosecutors filed charges of criminal negligence against three deputy police chiefs in North Ossetia in connection with the school seizure, and two other senior officers are expected to be charged. Three other officers in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia, where the hostage-takers are believed to have prepared for the operation, also have been charged. But investigators emphasized that they had uncovered no evidence of bribe-taking.

"I categorically refute any allegation that fighters may have passed the zone of responsibility of a police checkpoint for money," North Ossetian Interior Ministry spokesman Ismel Shaov said in an interview.

"Even the most hardened, dyed-in-the-wool bribe-taker would never be willing to line his own pocket at the expense of hundreds of lives," he said. "It's one thing if a cop lets a truckload of vodka through a checkpoint for money. But it's a totally different thing to let a group of armed people into your own town, to where your relatives live."

Former Beslan Police Chief Miroslav Aydarov, who was fired shortly after the school siege, is also facing a criminal negligence investigation. In an interview at a clinic in Vladikavkaz, where he was being treated for high blood pressure, Aydarov said police did the best job they could with the resources they had.

"I am just a regular cop. I am not a border guard," he said. "So, how exactly was I supposed to protect the administrative border [between North Ossetia and neighboring republics]? Was I supposed to put up barbed wire, or lay minefields around the entire perimeter to prevent any unauthorized infiltration?"

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