DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — The main avenue through Dushanbe is lined every 50-100 meters with pairs of cops in huge goofy hats. All day long, every day of the week, they use their batons to stop random drivers for no apparent traffic infraction and, after some fawned inspection of papers, solicit bribes. The process is constant, accepted, and appears to keep hundreds of useless policemen in their jobs. The police appear to take turns, with the partner either turning his back on the indiscretion or scoping his next target.
The other day I was witness to just how choreographed the bribing procedure can be. From the backseat of my tiny Soviet-era taxi with another expatriate, having been picked up less than a block away, I saw the common site of a traffic cop beckoning us to pull over ahead. The driver had barely stopped when he took a crusty one somoni note (about $0.30) out of a wad set aside for just such occasions, and stuck it into the petitioning traffic cop’s hands.
Either seeing us foreigners in the back — or seeking more money — the officer indicated his refusal in a gesture of feigned honor and beckoned the driver out with his papers for a little negotiation. On the trunk of the Lada, a short exchange followed between the gray old taxi driver and the lobbying cop. The whole episode was within reach of my wide lens just out the back window:
As the money was exchanged, the cop saw me and came to my window, throwing the one somoni note at me, as if he wasn’t really going to take it. He then demanded to see my camera and bag, as I issued clear instructions to my friend that we had better go. We walked a little ways while the policeman followed, trying to pull my arm in a weak combination of both fear and anger.
The poor taxi driver was almost crying as he screamed at me, as if my act of infidelity was designed to get him in trouble — or maybe he just couldn’t believe I would abandon his ride. Soon he climbed back in his diesel-stained car and passed by us, let out of the cop’s clutches with no other penalty than losing his customers. I wonder if he thought of us as doing him a favor, or was angry that we abandoned him to his selfish compatriot.