MOSCOW, March 12, 2009 -- Stanislav Sutyagin was planning to sell his large black Mercedes but it now has a huge dent in its right side. He's getting money to fix the damage, but it's not coming from his insurance company or the driver who hit him. The government is compensating Sutyagin after Moscow cops ordered him to park his car in the middle of a five-lane highway to block a car they were chasing.
The suspects slammed into the car carrying Sutyagin and a friend, but kept on going. The traffic policemen who had ordered Sutyagin to place his car sideways, and stay in it, told him that neither he nor the other two cars in the barricade would be reimbursed for damages because the fleeing silver Audi managed to escape.
On Thursday, the head of Moscow's traffic police was dragged in front of Russia's State Duma to explain the behavior of his forces. He said the officer in charge of the policemen who carried out the operation had been fired. Russia's interior minister called the behavior "unacceptable" and promised compensation for the three drivers.
The "human shield" scandal, as it has come to be known, erupted as Russia was dealing with another traffic accident that led to an intervention by President Dmitry Medvedev.
In that incident, a chauffeured Mercedes carrying a vice president of Lukoil, one of Russia's biggest oil companies, crashed into a smaller vehicle, killing a well-known gynecologist and her daughter-in-law. The executive escaped with minor injuries.
In an open letter to Medvedev from some of Russia's cultural elite, the police were accused of covering up for a powerful executive after they failed to open a case for two days. The police report said the small Citroen pulled out in front of the Mercedes and stated that no cameras captured the Feb. 25 crash.
A video emerged the next week showing the larger car moving into the lane dividing the two directions of traffic. The crash itself was obscured by a sign, but eyewitnesses and family members contest the police report, saying they will take the case to court.
Police Are Feared in Moscow
According to a poll released in February by the independent Moscow-based Levada Center, not a single Moscow respondent said they completely trust the organizations charged with their protection. It found that 67 percent of Russians said they fear law enforcement and 81 percent called the lawlessness of law enforcement a serious problem.
The stark numbers can be attributed to the constant random checks and demands for bribes from Russian police as well as regular headlines about police corruption and violence.
Last April, a policeman shot up a grocery store, killing two and wounding seven. In late December after a snowplow driver scraped a policeman's car, the officer shot him in the leg and the snowplow driver died from his injuries. In late January, a journalist in Siberia died a few weeks after a policeman beat him into a coma. The officer blamed stress.
The human shield incident only came to light after Sutyagin posted a video online, a protest tool increasingly being used in Russia with considerable effect.
"We could have been killed. What if the criminals had stopped?" Sutyagin asks, looking into his computer's camera. "We could have come under fire. Is it really the case that our lives are worthless in the Russian state?"
Moscow's police confirmed Sutyagin 's account and Muscovites responded with outrage.
Medvedev has made cleaning up the country's law enforcement a public priority, firing a number of top officials in recent months. But the effects have yet to be felt or reflected in Russians' attitudes.
"There is a lot of skepticism because many times people have heard about reforms but they haven't followed," says Denis Volkov, a spokesman for Levada. "[Distrust in the police] is a social norm, that's why the strategy is to try to minimize contact with law enforcement."