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Want another perestroika?

In Putin?s Russia, pirated goods are freely available and the red tape is reserved for the media, writes Fred Weir.

india Updated: Nov 30, 2006 03:31 IST
Fred Weir
Fred Weir

Pirate heaven is located in a sprawling former Moscow aircraft factory turned marketplace, called Gorbushka, where you can find almost anything you are looking for in music, software or movies, and pay next to nothing for it. You want everything the Beatles ever recorded on a single CD? A good quality DVD of Borat, Casino Royale, or just about any other first-run Hollywood film? The full electronic version of Encyclopedia Britannica? A pre-release copy of Microsoft’s new operating system Vista? All that’s completely illegal is freely available at Gorbushka and will cost less than $5 (Rs 225).

Russia became a major centre of global intellectual property theft after the collapse of the Soviet Union left the country with huge numbers of unemployed technicians and vast areas of unused industrial floor space. In recent years, the police have found underground DVD and CD factories operating inside companies that officially make everything from fighter planes to vacuum cleaners. Pirated products made in Moscow have turned up in every corner of the globe, but the main showplace for this vibrant and apparently indestructible industry is Gorbushka.

Successive Russian anti-piracy campaigns have swept through Gorbushka. Sometimes special police squads raid the place, but its hundreds of vendors always seem to have been forewarned and police find only shuttered shops and empty kiosks in their searches. All the official efforts to clean the place up have enjoyed only one victory — today a huge banner hangs at the entrance to the main hall where CDs and DVDs are sold, which says, ‘Piracy is theft! Buy only licensed products!’. Unfortunately, no licensed products are available here.

Think blue for speed

A couple of months ago, President Vladimir Putin decided that too many officials were abusing their special privilege to mount a flashing blue light — known as the migalka — on their cars, which empowers them to plough through traffic as if no rules existed. About 5,000 bureaucrats, businessmen and politicians in Moscow alone have this right, and their incessant speeding, traffic light jumping and lane-changing has become a major aggravation on the city’s already overcrowded and dangerous roads.

Earlier this year a popular Internet-based movement sprang up to demand most migalka rights be cancelled. The group’s leaders wonder why every single member of Russia’s Parliament is entitled to a migalka, as are many officials of the Central Bank, the Culture Ministry and even the Russian Orthodox Church. Many rich bankers and businessmen also appear to have the privileges, and even some movie stars have been seen tooling around in ‘blue light specials’.

Nobody is questioning the President’s own right to get to work on time without having to endure Moscow’s infamous traffic jams or stop for traffic lights. In Putin’s case, the entire 30-km route from his countryside dacha to the Kremlin is shut down twice daily, to enable the 12-car presidential cortege to race through Moscow at speeds of around 200 kmph.

In a televised meeting in September, Putin asked how many accidents were caused by official cars that drive down crowded streets as if they were emergency vehicles. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev responded that at least 215 accidents over the past six months could be traced to migalka-equipped cars. Like any good Kremlin leader, Putin ordered the situation to be corrected “within a week”. And, like magic, almost all flashing blue lights disappeared from Moscow streets — for about two weeks. Like the pirate goods at Gorbushka, they all returned as soon as the heat was off. Now it seems like there are more migalkas than ever on Moscow roads.

Writing on the wall

A string of court judgments against reporters who pushed the limits of Russia’s press freedoms has Moscow’s journalistic community on edge. Last week Boris Stomakhin, the editor of a small leftist newspaper, Radikalnaya Politika, was sentenced to five years in a labour camp “for inciting racial hatred” in a report about the ongoing conflict in the separatist region of Chechnya. Some experts say the extraordinarily harsh sentence handed to Stomakhin was due to his personal jibes against President Putin in his newspaper. Putin was compared to Saddam Hussein, among other things.

But the court ruled that the article incited ethnic hatred because “Stomakhin approved of the terrorists’ actions, which were aimed at destroying the Russian people as a race.”

Last month, another journalist and blogger, Vladimir Rakhmankov, was found guilty of breaking a law against “insulting State officials” and fined 20,000 roubles (about Rs 34,000), for calling Putin “Russia's phallic symbol” in an article about the new presidential programme to stimulate the birth rate by offering cash bonuses to mothers.

Reporters Without Borders, the global media watchdog, now rates Russia 148th out of 168 countries listed in its World Press Freedom index.

So much for pirated copy.

First Published: Nov 30, 2006 03:31 IST