Romania, Moscow, St. Petersburg
He literally jumped to the verge of the Romania highway from a hiding place among tall, leafy bushes. He was wearing some sort of brown uniform decorated with a few colorful insignia, topped by a service hat, and held together by a Sam Brown belt. In his hand was a two-foot wooden that held a red disc at the end with a white “X” crossing from side to side. My friend, the passenger in the front seat of our hired car, sighed as our driver pulled over near the officer. The driver muttered something about his papers in Romanian to my friend, himself a Romanian, and started rummaging through the glove box.
As I would learn over years of travel to Romania shakedowns were a part of daily life. Years later I would see the same thing on the streets of Moscow, in a Russian office, in an airport in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in a Greek repair shop petty corruption underpinned the economies of the former Soviet states.
My friend, a native Romanian who was coming home for the first time in a decade, and I were en route from Bucuresti to Sibiu, from the south of the country to the north, from the area influenced by centuries of Ottoman domination northward to Transylvania that had been dominated by the German Habsburgs and their Hungarian subordinates. It was a cultural shift from the lands accustomed to the violent heritage of Vlad Tepes to that part of modern Romania long steeped in the stifling traditions of German bureaucracy. Then, the officer sprang from the bushes.
The driver pulled over quickly, turned off the engine, pulled his car registration, insurance and personal papers from the glove compartment and went to the hood of the car where he displayed it all for the officer. From inside the car we could tell the discussion was not going well. Our driver bundled up his papers and returned to his seat. The officer stayed in front of the car and relaxed as if admiring the flat scenery. The driver said to my friend, “my papers are not in order.” My friend slipped a 420 bill between pages of the drivers papers and the driver returned to the hood of the car and resumed negotiating. Within a couple minutes he returned and the officer returned to his stool among the leafy, tall bushes. The driver said, “now my papers are in order” and started the engine.
In Moscow a Russian friend described a shakedown on the street where a different traffic cop was harassing a young woman by her car. “He is demanding a bribe or he will impound her car,” said my friend. She added it was much cheaper to pay a few rubles to the cop than much more to recover the car days later, if it could be found. “Things disappear,” she said in an emotionless, matter-of-fact voice. At the St. Petersburg airport two well-dressed young me walked up to my then wife and demanded something of her in Russian. She looked horrified. And, quickly they took her away. I had no idea what had happened and she merely said wait. I went to the back of the check in line. Time passed. The line was down to just me and the board was flashing the Russian version of boarding. Then, she reappeared, came to me and asked for $50. Shakedown. A sliver of paper needed for boarding didn’t have an authorizing initial on it, she groused. I gave her a $50 bill, she left and then quickly returned as the attendants signaled the gate was closing.
In Greece, I was at a repair shop with a broken window frame in hand. A British ex-pat had taken me to the repair shop where he was a regular. We struck up a lively conversation in various dialects of English as the young man worked away. Twenty minutes later the window frame had a nicely glazed piece of new glass and the worker told me the cost was 12 euros. I handed over the money and reflexively asked for a receipt. That stopped the work in his tracks, but he went to a terminal and tapped in the numbers and out spewed a receipt…for five euros. My expat friend explained on the way back home that cheating on taxes has been risen to the level of sport in Greece. In the Greek economic crisis of 2010 reporters explained why Greece could not pay its international debts – cheating from top to bottom had left the treasury all but empty.
Whenever I read a story of Russian money laundering through banks in Moldova, Estonia and Cyprus, or of the tax police showing up in all black with AK and balaklavas to make sure the “papers are in order” I remember the cop in the bushes in Romania, the cheater in Greece and the two pistol-packing strong arms at the airport in St. Petersburg.