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Russia: Officials And Bureaucrats Still Enjoy The Good Life

The perks and privileges that Soviet bureaucrats received under the Communist system were legendary. But RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky says the system is scarcely fairer today, and may even be worse.

Moscow, 13 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In the early morning and evening rush hours, Moscow's Kutuzovsky Prospect looks more like an elite speedway than a routine roadway.

Scores of Mercedes and other luxury cars sporting special license plates zoom down a specially reserved lane. They blur past a mass of mostly battered Soviet-made cars nudging along in the crowded lanes reserved for no one. Many of the gleaming autos are traveling to or from places like Zukovka or Barvicha, new gated communities that have cropped up on Moscow's periphery to provide homes for the elite.

During the Brezhnev era, only 124 autos were outfitted with the special tags that essentially give their holder carte blanche to drive with little regard for the rules of the road. But today, the special plates adorn not only the sleek sedans of the "creme de la Kremlin." Duma deputies and low-level government functionaries have them too. And a newly introduced series of license plates, designated 0-00, is available for sale to business people. Five to ten thousand dollars buys them freedom from traffic regulations.

The special license plate is just one of the many perks government officials enjoy in today's Russia. President Boris Yeltsin may have been the St. George who slew the communist dragon, but many critics blame him for not only tolerating but expanding the already bloated bureaucracy and its attendant perks.

Vladimir Simsky of the Moscow-based Democratic Information Center of Russia says the system of privileges, special favors and gifts was so widespread during the Soviet Union that the question arises whether they were really privileges. He says that system continues to this day.

"Millions of people were on these lists [of bureaucrats] and received various privileges. Even the janitors in the Kremlin got some special benefits -- and they still do. So, in my opinion, basically nothing has changed."

Simsky says the traditional system of favors and gifts -- and not market methods -- is what is guiding Russia's transition from communism to capitalism.

"Many members of our elite are using the system of privileges and titles to allow them to influence specific government decisions. And, of course, the system also brings with it [nice] cars, summer homes, [special] apartments, and other things like special medical treatment, etc."

In last month's election to Russia's lower house, the State Duma, candidates were vying for more than just a seat in the legislature. Duma membership carries significant perks. One of the most coveted of these is the right to acquire a cheap apartment in the Russian capital, where housing is tight and expensive. At the end of the term, legislators have a unique right to purchase, or "privatize," the apartment at a low price.

And within the Duma, all legislators are not alike. You won't find the "council" of the State Duma mentioned in the Russian constitution. But for those lucky enough to sit on the council, it means more riches. Simsky explains:

"[The council] is the body handling the agenda for the Duma's work, and it decides which questions will be addressed at which session. The council is led by the chairman of the Duma, his assistant and the leaders of all the Duma committees. [Council members] get more perks than the rest of the Duma. They have their own cars. They get special medical treatment, just like government officials have."

The council is also the scene of the most intense lobbying -- and legislators who sit on it have the best chance of picking up some cash on the side. Russian elites with a stake in a certain legislative issue do their utmost to ensure that the council schedules the issue for debate before the full State Duma.

In other words, the political system taking root in Russia is taking on many of the darker traits found in the West, where campaign financing has long been a reform issue. Maybe Russia is changing after all.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.