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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 July 2006, 20:34 GMT 21:34 UK
Greasing the wheels
By George Arney
BBC News, Moscow

Russian drinkers
Can corruption drive Russians to drink?

Denis is an alcoholic and a drug addict.

But the drugs, at least, are not his fault.

He started drinking at the age of 13. By 16, he was drinking so heavily that - to use his own words - he was "completely mad, nuts!"

He committed a serious crime - he'd prefer not to say what it was - and then spent a year in prison waiting to be put on trial. After that, being found guilty but "nuts", he spent another four years incarcerated inside a psychiatric hospital.

It was in the hospital that Denis became a drug addict.

Psychiatric nurses aren't very well paid anywhere. In Russia they're paid peanuts.

The only thing they have plenty of, is drugs. And pharmaceutical drugs can easily be abused. So to supplement their income, some nurses will hand drugs out to desperate hospital inmates, in exchange for small bribes.

That's how Denis went from drink to drugs. You could say that he was turned into a drug addict by Russia's chronic culture of bribery.

No rules

Bribery and corruption are everywhere in Russia, from top to bottom.

The competition isn't so bad that we have to kill each other yet
Alexander Ossipov

It's not by chance that most big businessmen are former members of the Communist Party elite.

In the first, chaotic years after the Russian bear embraced the free market, those with the best connections seized the state's main assets.

In capitalism's second phase, it's still sensible to stay close to the authorities - which means bribing or "feeding" officials regularly. That's the best guarantee that your private enterprise will prosper.

Sipping cappuccino in his Nevsky Prospekt showroom, fabric importer Alexander Ossipov makes no bones about the fact that he pays regular bribes to local officials and service providers - particularly when he's got a new project in hand.

He says the biggest problem is that there are no set rules.

"Sometimes you pay $1000, sometimes $2000 - you don't know for what," he says.

"Sometimes you pay today, and tomorrow a new person comes, and says 'forget about yesterday, you pay me and I'll make a new letter.'

"If we don't do it, we don't get the permission. The day you don't pay is a lucky day!"

'The way we live'

But Alexander - Sasha, to his friends - doesn't seem to resent it.

He has a similar attitude to that of the many private car owners who double up as taxi drivers in their spare time.

Alexander Ossigin in his shop

If you're stopped by the omnipresent traffic police, and if you want an easy life, it's better to pay up.

"This is the way we live," says Sasha. "Although now it is more expensive than before. You have to pay bigger bribes."

In any case, Sasha is doing very nicely, thank you.

His showroom is full of fine silks imported from Italy, China and India, and he's supplying curtain material for Russia's new rich from St Petersburg to Russia's Far East.

Taxes are low - or easily evaded - and his budget for bribery is well below 10% of his turnover.

He hints that he used to pay protection money for his business. Now he employs a private security firm.

But does he aspire to becoming a curtain oligarch? Would he or his competitors in the fabric industry ever consider hiring a hit man to bump off their business rivals?

Competition

Sasha takes another sip of coffee.

"This curtain fabric market is not so small in Russia. It's a big country. There are a lot of windows that need new curtains, and the market is still growing strongly. The competition isn't so bad that we have to kill each other yet."

He laughs. I'm relieved. He's joking. I think.

By the way, Denis is laughing these days as well.

He found Alcoholics Anonymous when he was in the psychiatric hospital, and he's been clean for more than a year now. No drink and no drugs.

Good for him. A new life in the new Russia.




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