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Moscow’s need for speed

by Andrew Roth, RussiaProfile.org at 06/10/2011 22:43

Russia’s law enforcement services have recently declared war on “migalki,” the blue flashing lights on many of Moscow’s luxury cars that have become a symbol of elitism on Russian roads. Some say that document checks for cars sporting the flashing lights in central Moscow are the first hint of a pre-election campaign to court support from Moscow’s frustrated automobilists. Others insist that the only important opinions here are those of real “migalki” owners, who are waging war against those illegally taking advantage of this elite privilege.

From September 27 through October 4, many of Moscow’s privileged drivers faced an unprecedented situation. On roadways near the Kremlin, the police pulled over government officials’ Audis and BMWs and checked documentation for their specialized license plates and flashing lights. More than 1,000 vehicles were inspected, and only 10 sirens were confiscated, along with 65 sets of falsified documents, including obvious forgeries. Take, for instance, one driver of a Mercedes S-Class, who presented himself as “general-lieutenant, chairman of the council of great military leaders of the Interior Ministry.”

The results are notable for being one of the first times when police aggressively questioned Moscow’s highway aristocracy, who jet around traffic jams by speeding down lanes meant for oncoming traffic. Almost all law enforcement services got in on the action, with reports that the Interior Ministry, the FSB, the traffic police and the presidential security services worked together in the crackdown.

Privileged drivers are at the root of Moscow’s serpentine traffic jams and deadly hit-and-runs, say activists. Examples of outrageous violations have cropped up each year, often as law enforcement turned a blind eye to the rights of regular drivers on the roads.

More recently, the emergence of grassroots organizations, like the Blue Bucket Society, which stages protests and regularly uploads videos of traffic infractions carried out by vehicles with sirens to the Internet, has begun to turn the tide on the issue.

With the popularity of the Blue Buckets exploding last year (close to 40 percent of Russians said they had heard something about the group in a Levada poll last October), some saw the recent move by law-enforcement to clamp down on unofficial “migalki” as an early attempt to court public opinion, as Russia enters election season. “This is just a regular, populist action in the run-up to the elections,” said the Head of the Federation of Automobile Owners of Russia Sergei Kanayev, reported Interfax.

Pyotr Shmukatov, coordinator of the Blue Buckets society, is likewise skeptical about the effectiveness of the short-term checks. He said the checks were induced by a fender bender between a banking executive and a government official, both of whom had flashing sirens on their cars, although the banker’s were illegal. Kommersant upheld this version, adding that an official from the Presidential Secret Service owned the BMW with the official flashing light, which led directly to the imposition of the checks.

It was the “migalki” owners concerned about their personal interests who imposed the checks, said Pavel Salin, an analyst at the Center for Political Assessments. “This only became an issue for the government when those in possession of ‘migalki’ saw their own interests endangered,” he said.

“I’m afraid that here, any public activity like this serves either to protect the interests of those in power or in struggles between elite groups.”.

Activists have remained unimpressed by what has been denounced as a temporary campaign. “Ten confiscated illegal ‘migalki’ – that’s nothing in comparison with their actual number,” Kommersant quoted Shmukatov as saying

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