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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 16:42 GMT
Ukraine targets road mayhem
Ivan Khokhotva
BBC Monitoring, Kiev Unit

KM gives you total immunity, EO works only in the east and 777 looks cool but doesn't really mean anything.

Complicated? Welcome to the world of Ukrainian motoring, where what looks like a meaningless string of numbers and letters on your car's number plate can make you the king of the road.

Police car
Some number plates give the car owner total immunity to traffic laws

A complicated system of "privileged" number plates, semi-official permits and unspoken rules puts well-connected motorists effectively above the law - but not for much longer, the Ukrainian media hope.

It is this system, much hated by ordinary road users, that experts say is partly to blame for the 7,000 deaths on Ukraine's roads last year. And it is this system that President Leonid Kuchma has taken steps to dismantle - with some important omissions.

A recent survey conducted by the investigative website Ukraina Kriminalnya confirmed what ordinary Ukrainian motorists knew all too well. Ukraine's numerous and fearsome traffic cops regularly turn a blind eye to offenders whose cars proudly display the "proper" number plate.

Magic numbers

The degree of immunity to the depredations of the traffic police depends on the potency of the magic combinations.

Ukranian President Leonid Kuchma
Kuchma claims to be against the use of privileged number plates
The three most powerful two-letter codes belong to the presidential administration, parliament and the cabinet of ministers - but wealthy individuals may also apply.

Their luxurious limos are regularly observed driving away scot-free after jumping red lights or hurtling through central Kiev at 100mph, while traffic cops stand idly by. The blue number plates on the cars of law-enforcement agencies are almost as good.

Less powerful codes are dished out unofficially by the motoring authorities. Some work only in their home regions and guard against punishment for minor offences, others are nearly as effective as the "government" combinations.

There is also a wide range of various permits and certificates on offer, all telling the traffic cops - on behalf of one authority or another - to mind their own business.

And well-connected people who have no time to waste on traffic jams can pay up to $10,000 - strictly unofficially - for a permit to install the blue and red beacons used by the police and the emergency services, according to Ukraina Kriminalnaya.

Open secret

Although most of this chicanery is utterly illegal, the system of car privileges is an open secret in Ukraine.

A recent advertisement extolling the virtues of mobile phones featured - only half-jokingly - a traffic cop pulling over a speeding sports car. The incident is promptly resolved after a call from the young driver to his well-connected father.

Ukraine's state-owned UT1 TV channel recently showed an angry President Kuchma fulminating over the mayhem on the country's roads. "Look at all those flashing beacons on the roads, look at all those number plates! They just wave some piece of paper when they're pulled over, and off they go! And it's the government that introduced all these things!"

The campaign against car privileges has so far resulted in a large number of special road patrols depriving wealthy car owners of their ill-gotten flashing beacons. The government has also promised to end the much-loathed practice of halting traffic on major roads when some bigwig whizzes past to his dacha outside Kiev.

But although most of the existing special number plates are heading for the scrap heap, the alluring idea of magic numbers is far from dead. The president may have abolished the old privileged letter codes, but he has also introduced a new one - for a narrower circle of the ruling elite.

BBC Monitoring, based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.

Country profile: Ukraine
16 Jul 03  |  Country profiles
Ukraine's dummy police cars
05 Mar 03  |  Europe

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