For Russians, Car Wreck Is A Case Study In Privilege
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 13, 2006; A01
BIISK, Russia -- The imprisonment of a man who was involved in a traffic accident that killed one of Russia's best-known politicians triggered protests across the country this weekend, especially among motorists who view the jailing as a chilling failure of the courts to protect average citizens from vengeful authorities.
Outraged supporters of Oleg Shcherbinsky, a railway worker whose car was hit from behind last summer by a speeding car carrying the Altai region's governor, rallied Saturday and Sunday in 22 Russian cities, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok in the Far East. Shcherbinsky was convicted at a closed trial this month and sentenced to four years in a labor colony.
"For the people in power, we are all nobodies," said Alexander Kiryanov, a 33-year-old railway worker from Shcherbinsky's home village outside Biisk. "After this story, how can anyone believe in justice for the people?"
Nowhere is the privilege -- and abuse -- of power more visible to ordinary Russians than on the roads, where politicians and bureaucrats, who have special license plates and blue lights for their luxury vehicles, speed recklessly, force other drivers aside and generally flout the rules. At the same time, ordinary citizens are subject to constant harassment from traffic police, who routinely demand small bribes. These irritants have become the source of open anger because many motorists can easily imagine themselves suffering Shcherbinsky's fate.
"We have a caste system on our roads: The elite who do what they want and everybody else who is supposed to get out of their way," said Vyacheslav Lysakov, head of a motorists' club in Moscow that organized Sunday's rally in the city. "Those who have power should observe the law and only then demand that everyone else do it."
The crash occurred on a beautiful morning Aug. 7 in the Altai region of Siberia. Shcherbinsky, 36, his wife and 12-year-old daughter, along with a neighbor and her son, were heading to a lake for a picnic. Gov. Mikhail Yevdokimov, 48, was on his way to the birthday celebration for a Soviet cosmonaut who hailed from a nearby village. His wife sat beside him in the back seat. Up front were his official driver and a bodyguard.
Both cars were traveling north on the road from Biisk to Barnaul, the regional capital. The road, which is generally straight but hilly, was quiet that morning. There was no oncoming traffic as Shcherbinsky started to make a left turn, according to court records.
The governor's Mercedes was passing another car and had crossed over the center line when it crested a hill outside Biisk. Shcherbinsky, driving a Toyota, was about 300 yards farther down the two-lane road. He was slowing, turn signal on, and easing into the turn, according to court records and testimony.
Yevdokimov's driver began to brake about 80 yards from the point of impact, but it was too late. The Mercedes hit the left side of the Toyota and became airborne, then slammed into a birch tree.
Yevdokimov, a former actor and comedian who was labeled the "Schwarzenegger of Siberia" after he became governor of the Altai region in 2004, was killed instantly, as were his driver and bodyguard. Yevdokimov's wife was seriously injured. None of the five people in Shcherbinsky's car was injured.
Shcherbinsky testified that he never saw or heard the car coming from behind. A witness testified that the Mercedes never used its horn or siren, although it did have a blue light on its roof. Investigators told the court that the Mercedes's speed was at least 93 mph; defense lawyers said it was probably closer to 125 mph.
"I remember a strong blow and then another car flying," said Svetlana Shcherbinskaya, Oleg's wife, who was sitting in the front passenger seat.
A judge ruled that Shcherbinsky should have seen the Mercedes and stopped even though the turn was legal and there was plenty of room on Shcherbinsky's right for the Mercedes to pass. On Feb. 3, the judge sentenced him to four years in a labor colony for careless driving leading to the death of others and for not yielding to a car with priority. Defense attorneys described the proceeding in detail in interviews here, and journalists were allowed to attend the reading of the verdict that summarized the evidence in the case.
"Why must simple people answer for the mistakes of others?" said Natalia Golosova, 31, who was among about 1,000 people at the rally in Moscow Sunday.
Shcherbinsky's attorneys argue that the governor's driver was either going so fast that he could not correct the car and move it to the right or that he mistakenly thought he could squeeze through on Shcherbinsky's left.
"It was an ordinary traffic accident, but the trouble was that in one of the cars was the governor of the region," said Andrei Karpov, one of two attorneys for Shcherbinsky, whose defense has been paid for by donations from motorist clubs across Russia and the railroad workers union. "The driver of the governor's car was driving without thinking, driving extremely fast and no longer in control of the car."
That also seemed to be the opinion of local officials immediately after the accident. Traffic police at first said the Mercedes was passing illegally, and the governor's spokesman, responding to suggestions that the crash might have been a staged assassination, said it was simply an accident.
"We hoped the investigation would be fair," Shcherbinskaya said in an interview outside the jail in Biisk where her husband will be held until his first appeal is heard. "But then I think they decided that someone had to be guilty."
The initial speculation about an assassination was prompted by the fact that the Interior Ministry had withdrawn Yevdokimov's escort car a week before the accident, saying governors were not entitled to them.
Yevdokimov, who had defeated a candidate from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party to become governor, was constantly struggling with local political elites. The regional parliament twice passed motions of no confidence in him.
But the governor remained popular with the people, and because of his fame as an actor his death reverberated nationally. An opinion poll in December found that 36 percent of respondents said Yevdokimov's death was the political event of the year, making it a more popular choice than the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and the controversial imprisonment of tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
In November, Yevdokimov's widow, Galina Yevdokimova, appeared to issue a letter vindicating Shcherbinsky, calling him an "ordinary man" who had neither "high ranks or relations." She also said regional officials should explain why her husband had no escort car.
But by then, prosecutors had decided to try Shcherbinsky. Yevdokimova, in a later statement, said she never issued the letter, although local reporters in the Altai region said they believed that it was genuine and that the widow had been pressured to withdraw it.
A spokesman from the regional prosecutor's office declined to comment on the case.
At the trial, District Court Judge Galina Sheglovskaya rejected every defense motion, including demands for an expert examination of the speed of the governor's car. Every prosecution motion was granted.
"Oleg had to pay," said Sergei Shmakov, one of Shcherbinsky's attorneys, "but only because he's alive."