Commentary Type

Moscow Traffic: The Cost of Authoritarianism

Op-ed in the Moscow Times


Moscow's traffic jams are presumably the worst in the world at present. They show Russia's fundamental problem. Materially, the middle class has grown strong, but a small ruling elite disregards the rest of the population. Karl Marx would have said that the economic base has outgrown the political superstructure. Ultimately, Moscow's traffic jams show how badly Russia needs democracy.

For years, the Moscow traffic has been getting ever worse. On the last day of October, it came to a complete standstill for six hours from four to ten p.m. An underlying cause is Russia's impressive economic boom, but many countries have enjoyed an annual growth of 7 percent or more for a decade, though only a few have suffered as badly as Moscow. Examples that stand out are Teheran and Lagos during their oil booms in the 1970s and Bangkok in its 1990s boom.

When I drove in Moscow 20 years ago, congestion was unknown. The normal speed in the city center was 100 km/h, and you could park anywhere. The Soviet Union was not a mass consumption society but an elite society, with cars and roads reserved for the elite. Moscow had only about 300,000 cars. The masses were relegated to collective transportation in the underground, and bicycles were even prohibited in the city center.

When Russia introduced a market economy in 1992, the government stopped limiting the supply of cars to the people through rationing, extreme protectionism, and exorbitant taxes. Muscovites could choose for themselves, and they wanted cars as everybody else in the world. Today, Moscow has over 3 million cars.

But the government has not adjusted to the new situation. The reason is not economic, but political. As Russia's democratization was never more than partial, and now gone altogether, the government serves the elite rather than the people, and the traffic police form a loyal cog in the authoritarian wheel. Its foremost function is to keep the roads clear for top state officials. Often traffic lights are being turned off, because some official wants to travel freely. For the president, roads can be closed for a couple of hours. Nobody counts the social or individual cost of traffic disruptions.

A stark illustration is the morning traffic on Rublyovskoe Shosse. One morning, I drove in the opposite direction of this traffic lout of Moscow. Hundreds of privileged equipages sparred with one another, trying to figure out who had the highest status and what concrete benefits they could extract for themselves in this truly Hobbesian world. The only surprise was that no bodyguards started shooting, but that might soon be the case.

The catalyst of the November standstill was that many of roads in the city center had been closed because the president of Angola visited Moscow, and the Russian president wanted to move freely with his guest. A spokeswoman of the traffic police declared that this is done all over the world, which is not true. In addition, she flatly denied that the jam had been that bad. Finally, she alleged that the drivers themselves were at fault.

That is the case in point. The Russian police take no responsibility for order. In a democracy, the traffic police are supposed to assist the population by bringing order and reducing traffic deaths. In Russia, by contrast, the traffic police care little about speeding, drunken driving, and ultimately death. Consequently, Russia has one of the highest rates of traffic death in the world. In the same way, the ordinary police do not care about the homicide rate, rendering Russia's murder rate one of the highest in the world. Ministers' sons are welcome to run over innocent people when drunk.

Instead, after they have taken care of top officials, the Russian traffic police are allowed to enrich themselves through extortion, thus manifesting the superiority of the state over society. A drunk or speeding driver might have to pay a higher bribe than otherwise, but he may continue his dangerous voyage. Many countries have cameras that objectively record speeding and driving against red lights. All orderly countries have introduced systems in which all fines must be paid via bank transfer or with checks, while policemen must never be paid in cash.

Today, Russia has an eminently functioning payment system, and the prevailing extraction of cash payments by policemen shows nothing but the government's acceptance of their corruption and disregard for the lives of ordinary citizens. The old Soviet kleptocracy, which allowed officials to steal as long as the stealing was moderate, is still kept alive.

In the last few years, Russia has renamed the traffic police, and they have received huge new resources, but traffic deaths are not declining while the traffic jams are becoming ever worse, because the tasks of the traffic police have not changed. The reason is not that it is particularly difficult but official disinterest. Many other post-Soviet countries have successfully reformed the traffic police.

An old Soviet artifact is police posts on the borders of all oblasts. They were set up to control that unauthorized people, such as kolkhoz peasants and foreigners, did not move around the country. They have no role to play in a free society, but as long as they persist, the policemen at hand will inevitably indulge in extortion. Several post-Soviet countries have abolished these police posts. President Akaev did so in Kyrgyzstan and Yushchenko did the same as prime minister in 2000. In Ukraine the abolition of these police posts freed trade within the country that remains so encumbered in Russia. In Georgia President Saakashvili drew the logical conclusion and abolished the entirely harmful traffic police altogether.

With the renewed rise of state power in Russia, the number of privileged people with blue lights and escorts has increased to many thousands. Do not believe that any administrative regulation will reduce their number. In Ukraine, by contrast, these notorious pseudo-official convoys have almost disappeared with democracy, for all but the president and the prime minister. Even they do not have all traffic lights turned off as President Kuchma still did.

Even an ideal police could not bring order to Moscow's traffic. The whole policy has favored the interests of the elite at the expense of the population. Why do you have to drive several kilometers before you are allowed to turn to the left? Why are road works allowed to block so many roads for such a long time? Why are wrongly parked cars allowed to block both pavements and streets? Why have international traffic planners not been invited to sort out the mess? Only recently attempts have been made to coordinate traffic lights.

The same is true of the investment policy. Why has Moscow so few multilevel crossings? Why are so few parking houses being built? How could anybody build the Manege shopping center without providing any parking spaces?

The obvious answer to all these questions is that the elite does not care about the population because power in Russia comes from the president, not from the people.

Next time you get stuck in the Moscow traffic, think about it! Can the Kremlin (forget the emasculated city hall!) solve Moscow's traffic problem without listening to the people? I do not think so. The ultimate cause of Moscow's horrendous traffic jams is the arrogance of power. A modern complex society needs the feedback from its population to grow strong. As in a Marxian farce, the new Russian authoritarianism is recreating the mistake of the Soviet Union: to build a system that is too centralized and rigid to be able to function in a modern society.

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