MOSCOW BLOG: Traffic manners and blue lights

By bne IntelliNews May 31, 2010

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The most annoying thing about living in Moscow is the traffic. And it's not the legendary jams, but the arrogance of the expensive BMWs, Audis and Mercedes sporting flashing blue lights that really gets on the nerves. They blithely jump out into the oncoming traffic and force their way in front of you, or run red lights causing you to stand on the brakes to avoid a crash.

But there is a small political revolution underway on the streets of the capital. Regular Muscovites have had enough. Owners of less expensive cars have been taping blue buckets onto the tops of their cars in mockery of the blue lights, known as migalki in Russian. Others have refused to move out of the way when an expensive sedan is charging towards them in the wrong lane. And a few people are attacking the cars doubled parked outside of the Kremlin.

Russian life is lived out in microcosm on its roads and the blue-bucket protests are the sensational end of a more mundane change appearing on the capital's roads: regular drivers are finally learning some manners.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the only cars on the street were the Russian-made Lada or the Soviet Union's "other" car, the Volga sedan. As a few businessmen managed to export the country's copious amounts of oil and metals over the border, extremely expensive Mercedes appeared in the mid-1990s, followed by even more stolen Mercedes.

Indeed, so many Mercedes were stolen from the streets of Germany and driven back to the Russian capital - most still had the "D" country sticker on their boot - that the leading German insurance companies donated millions of euros to the Russian police in an effort to stop the flood.

These days, thanks to ballooning incomes and easily available credit, the streets of Moscow are packed with every kind of car - except Ladas and Volgas. The Mercs are still there, but now they are brand new and legally imported, but outnumbered by the Fords, Daewoos, Toyotas and VWs.


In the dog-eat-dog days of the 1990s, the expensive cars could do what they liked. If they were stopped by the police, a bribe of a few hundred rubles was enough to ensure they were quickly on their way again. The result was optional traffic regulations and some of the worst road safety statistics in Europe.

On Kutuzovsky Prospect - a monster eight-lane road that runs into the centre of the city - cars can get up to over 100mph and the road is regularly littered with the wreckage of fatal crashes. There were about 200,000 car accidents in 2009 that killed about 31,000 people, but only a fifth of crashes are caused by drunk driving, according to the Interior Ministry.

Normal Russians were too busy surviving then to worry too much about the driving habits of their better off peers in the flash cars, but that is changing now the middle class is growing.

In the 1990s, drivers would typically barge into a line of traffic rather than wait their turn and crossroads are still regularly clogged as cars get caught in the middle of the junction when the lights change. Slowly, as drivers begin to relax as life gets a little easier, a few drivers now wait to let you out of a side road, or make space so you can get across the road at a junction. If you do this, you are likely to receive a quick blinking of the hazard lights in grateful thanks.

Without wanting to stretch the point, the blue-bucket protests are arguably the first sign of political awareness amongst the average Russian. In the 1990s, poor Russians were willing to concede that rich people in big cars had the right of way regardless of where they were coming from, but now these middle-class drivers are starting to insist that traffic rules apply to everyone.

Car owners are among the best-organized grassroots political forces in the country, and have already staged mass protests over high gas prices, import tariffs and corruption among traffic police. But now are becoming increasingly proactive in their fight against the migalki-sporting elite.

Tempers flared in May when a top of the line Mercedes S600 ran a red light with its blue light flashing on Moscow's central thoroughfare Tversakaya and rammed into a green BMW sedan. No one was hurt. It turned out the Mercedes belonged to Dagestani Governor and super-rich businessman Suleiman Kerimov.

Predictably, the police initially denied there was an accident and the (unidentified) occupant of the Merc climbed into a jeep full of security men and sped off. However, the city traffic police ended up with egg on their face after several witnesses posted pictures on blogs on Russia's top social networking site, causing a storm of public protest.

Eventually, an unidentified man appeared in court a few days later and was fined RUB100 (€2.60) for running the red light. To put this in perspective, police usually ask for a minimum of RUB500 as a bribe for even the most minor traffic infringement.

Things are beginning to get out of hand. The blue-bucket protestors organized a demonstration driving their cars around the city, which the police were powerless to prevent, because as long as the cars kept moving the law considers them to be nothing more than traffic. (There are laws to prevent more than three people assembling on foot.) So the Duma promptly introduced a new law that defines demonstrations on wheels.

But the issue is unlikely to go away. Another group of young men have taken to hanging out near the Kremlin and attacking expensive cars with migalki, running over the roof wearing a blue bucket on their heads and taping the incidents for the internet

This is the rise of the middle class in action. As affluence grows, so will the belief that all citizens are equal before the law and tolerance of Russia's venal police force and endemic corruption will fall.

The Kremlin lives in terror of radicalising the average Russian and sparking one of the "coloured revolutions" that has swept the Commonwealth of Independent States in recent years.

It has cut opposition groups off from the media, sending the riot police in to quell even the most peaceful protest (including a demonstration over higher car import duties in Vladivostok last year), and when all else fails Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will personally fly to a trouble spot and knock some oligarch heads together (live on TV) to present a scapegoat.

But this is not enough. A key part of Putin's plan is to see nearly two thirds of Russia's population in the middle class by 2020 (up from about 20% now). If he is successful, then he will cause his own revolution simply because the average person will insist on equity and the rule of law. Strange as it may seem, democracy in Russia today wears a blue bucket on its head.

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