Bribes on Red Square: How to Avoid Being a Victim
Tourists in Red Square on Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve -- January 6, 2007
(Photo: Yuri Mamchur)
For tourists, the extended Russian winter holidays can be a wonderful time to visit Russia. From December 31 to January 14, most of the country shuts down and the usually gridlocked streets of Moscow are clear. Air fares for flights into Moscow and St. Petersburg are also substantially cheaper in mid-winter than in the summertime or pre-holiday season. Most Russians are also visibly more relaxed this time of year.
But there is also a dark side to the extended holidays for unsuspecting travelers visiting Russia's cities -- namely, Russian cops shaking down foreigners for bribes because they lack valid stamps on their visas. This corrupt practice targeting foreigners takes place even on Red Square, next to the walls of the Kremlin. Russia Blog has heard from three Americans and one Italian citizen who were stopped by the militsia on or near Red Square during the first week of January. All four foreigners were threatened with detention at the nearby migration processing center on Tverskaya Street unless they paid a "fine" - on the spot and in cash - for not having a properly stamped visa.
Allow me to explain the legal pretext the police use for this extortion racket: in Russia, the police can legally stop you and request that you present valid identification. If you are a foreigner, this means having a valid stamped Russian visa in your passport. If the visa is not legally stamped, your visa can be annulled and you can be barred from entering Russia for several years. However, such draconian measures hardly ever happen.
Obtaining a Russian visa is a relatively painless process. You can apply at the Russian Embassy or at the nearest Russian consulate in your country by filling out a two page form and then paying a processing fee ($100 for a tourist visa application which takes five days to process). Many travel agencies in the U.S. or other countries will submit this application for you, provided that they collect an additional fee to produce your visa invitation. It is much easier for an American to obtain a Russian visa than vice versa.
Once you are in Russia, the law says that you have 72 hours to register with the authorities. This procedure is not a legacy of the Soviet Union, but was implemented a few years ago, after multiple terrorist attacks in Moscow. In addition to improving Russia's homeland security, the measure was also intended to combat criminal gangs in the city formed by migrants from the former Soviet republics. The procedure is not simply a bureaucratic scheme to soak foreigners, but involves an actual background check for everyone staying in Moscow.
If you are traveling to Moscow, and staying in an expensive hotel like the Renaissance or the Arbat, these hotels will have contracted a government employee to run the background check and certify your visa immediately. If you do not want to stay in a hotel for the duration of your visit to Russia, you need to either get a room for at least one night or pay a local travel agency to "stamp" your visa. In Moscow, these travel agencies charge as much as $70. There also is a very inexpensive (about $5) and legal way of registering in person at any OVIR office (the Russian version of a Department of Homeland Security office), but this can take several hours.
Unfortunately, this year all OVIR registration offices and travel agencies were closed in Moscow for the winter holidays from Friday, December 29, 2006 through Tuesday, January 9, 2007. The only legal way to obtain a valid visa stamp during this week would have been to spend one night at a hotel with an OVIR agent on duty, which would have cost a foreigner several hundred dollars (i.e. a room at the Renaissance Hotel ranges from $445.00-$850.00 per night). Since many foreigners enter Russia on tourist or business visas and then stay with friends or in rented apartments, the militsia plan for the holiday season was simple -- stake out areas popular with tourists, find foreigners with "overdue" visa registration, and shake them down for bribes.
Russian police are underpaid and therefore notorious for trying to supplement their meager incomes with bribes. The official salary for a street cop in Moscow is about $500 a month, which is barely enough to pay rent for a one room apartment in the suburbs 45 minutes by train from downtown. As a cop who stopped one of the Americans explained, "at Red Square we have a quota -- fine twenty foreigners a week to pay our salaries." After buying Christmas presents for their families, the cops in Red Square were more than motivated to exceed their quota.
In practice, the amount of the "fine" depends on how many cops are "sharing". One American only paid 1,700 rubles ($65) - "everything he had on him" - when he was stopped by a couple of policemen. Another American who was stopped in Red Square, this one a veteran traveler in Russia and Ukraine, laughed at the cops and then demanded to see their documents. He got away without paying anything. The reason he got away free is that he understood the facts: the only officials who can legally revoke your visa are OVIR agents, and they were all on holiday vacation until January 9. By law, Russian police can only detain a foreigner on an immigration violation for three hours, and they cannot arrest you unless you have been caught committing a criminal act. The bottom line: there was nothing the police could legally do to make foreigners pay during the holidays; the cops were simply intimidating foreigners and preying on their ignorance of Russian laws.
One American who did not know his rights tried to explain to the cops who stopped him that it was impossible to register during the holidays without paying for an expensive hotel room. "Then you should have gotten a room, three days is the law" was their response. During this conversation, more police officers gathered around to watch -- and to ask about their cut. Sensing the sharks circling, the American recalled asking the cops, "So what do we do now...how much?" The cops nervously gestured towards the security cameras on the Kremlin wall to indicate, "Not here." The starshina (leader of the group) led the American into a nearby guard shack to ask him how much money he was carrying. After presenting 2,000 rubles (about $80), the American was told, "This is not enough. You're an American, you can pay more. The minimum fine is 4,500 rubles ($173)." The police then helpfully offered to safely escort the American to a nearby ATM. On the way to the ATM, one officer called his girlfriend, "I have some business to finish here milaya (dear), but I'll be home soon."
Russia Blog recommendations to foreigners visiting Moscow:
1. Know your rights:
When Russian police stop you for an immigration violation they cannot detain you for more than three hours. Unless you have committed a crime, they cannot touch you or use force. You are NOT obligated to give the police your passport, only to show it to them, and you can insist on turning the page to the appropriate visa yourself. Any US passport is the legal property of the government of the United States of America!
2. Plan ahead:
The person or persons you intend to stay with at a private residence will need to help you apply at their local OVIR office in person within the three days of your arrival. Otherwise ask the hotel you are planning to stay at if they will assist you with the necessary visa registration.
3. Carry your own cell phone or a cell phone with a Russian SIM card and program it with the number of your country's nearest consulate or embassy:
If you obtain a valid visa stamp but still don't trust the police not to try for a bribe, in major Russian cities you can carry a cell phone. Program it with the number for your embassy or the nearest consulate in advance for speed dialing. Russian SIM cards for many popular brands of cellular telephones (Motorola, Siemens, Samsung, etc.) can be purchased at shopping malls and kiosks in major Russian cities for as little as $5. In Moscow, many cellular kiosks are open 24 hours a day.
4. Ask police for their identification:
Beware that sometimes scoundrels try to extort foreigners while pretending to be cops. Even if the police officers are real, they will think twice before pressing you for a bribe after you demand their names and titles. Remember that the vast majority of Russian cops cannot speak a foreign language and do not want the hassle of dealing with foreigners who refuse to pay. Usually when challenged, they move on to another foreigner who can be intimidated into paying, or to a Russian citizen who has committed an actual infraction.
5. Stay calm, do not get nervous, be polite but firm:
Show your knowledge of the laws and if necessary, demonstrate a willingness to dial the phone number of your embassy. Remember that you are a citizen of your own country, and if you are abiding by the law Russian police can do absolutely nothing to you -- they cannot detain you, hurt you or extract money.
There is an ongoing crackdown on corruption in Russia, and the rule of law is slowly coming into force. Fewer government officials are eager to risk their jobs and freedom now than they were a few years ago. If challenged in a polite and legal way, the police will almost never dare to ask you for a bribe. If you honestly pursue legal visa registration for your visa and refuse to be intimidated by the cops, you can avoid the humiliation and hassle of paying a bribe.
Since both offering and accepting a bribe is a crime in the Russian Federation, and complicity in criminal acts can legally bar foreigners from being admitted into the country in the future, we have not published any names or dates to protect the privacy of the victims. In 2005, bribes paid out in the Russian Federation reportedly amounted to $316 billion dollars, or three times the amount of the Russian federal budget. If the Russian government cannot stop graft in Red Square, where can it stop it?
UPDATE - January 26, 2007 - Welcome, Pajamas Media readers!