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News Briefs 2

Russian Passport Peddling: Business, Bribery, or Birthright?

Los Angeles Times

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 more stark - 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 up to 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 passport-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 and does not have access to vital state secrets - a process that ordinarily takes at least two weeks.

"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, 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 the government clerks are not paid to break the law or to steal from the state, but only to work faster.