Yesterday I was pulled over...

Yesterday while driving around in a fruitless search for barbeque grills in the Shengavit district I was pulled over by a traffic cop. I was driving at the speed limit but he decided to pull me over anyway, as traffic police generally pull motorists over at random.

Police corruption is a huge problem in Armenia, as it has become an accepted system. When motorists are pulled over they expect to pay a $2.00 bribe on the spot to continue on their way without incident. If you don’t offer the bribe, the police could make problems for you. They can inspect your car on the spot and give you a hassle for a broken taillight, even threatening to impound your car or remove your registration plates. The corruption throughout the police system has become laughable—it is literally joked about on television comedy shows. A couple of weeks ago a police spokesmen for the Yerevan police department at a press conference denied that any form of extortion of bribes existed, whether by traffic police or vehicle registration/inspection (see my blog entry “Tekh Osmotr”). That wasn’t supposed to be a joke but….

I did not get out of the vehicle to present my papers with a 1000 dram note wedged in between. When I am pulled over I always remain in my car and wait for the policeman to approach. He introduced himself with a pathetic salute, announcing his name and rank. Traffic cops wear an army green police cap with a red band that always looks too big for their heads, a short-sleeve blue shirt during the summer months, and military gray or black pants. They sport a black and white striped baton that they swirl around like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp did with his cane, then suddenly point it at a motorist to pull over. I handed him my papers—the vehicle “passport,” the title, and a translation of my driver’s license as well as the original. He inspected them, then instead of sending me on my way after noticing that I am not an Armenia citizen from reading my license, he started to hassle me.

This sometimes happens. Twice before I was hassled about my driver class being “D”, when in Armenia it is “B,” and that I should go to the central license distribution center or something to clear that problem up. After I asked him where the place was I told him that I would go there and take care of it. But that wasn’t all. He insisted that my car be confiscated, that we go down to the center together so that I drop off my car there where it would stay until I got my paperwork straightened out.

Then I told him something he didn’t like—that I wasn’t going to give him what he wanted. “What do you mean?” he asked, whereby I repeated, “I am not going to give you what you expect. Pull someone else over and get what you want, but you’re not getting it from me.”

He didn’t appreciate that of course and defended his pride by saying “I don’t need what you’re referring to because I have plenty of money, I’m a wealthy man (his belly proved that). I’m telling you that you can’t go on driving because your papers are not in order.”

I asked him if everything was not in order, why was a new registration/inspection sticker issued to me, why did I have a title or the vehicle “passport,” and why was I even given the right to own a car in Armenia. He argued that the fact I owned a legally registered car in my name had nothing to do with my license. I told him to give me back my papers so that I could continue on and he refused. I told him I came to Armenia, to live and work in the homeland, and so forth, but he didn’t care. Then I asked him something else he did not like: “How much do you want so that you’ll leave me alone?” He grumbled that he didn’t need my money, then handed me back the papers.

After he did so he started reading the line I’ve rarely heard before: “You foreigners come over here and think you’re….” whereby I cut him off in mid-sentence and told him to get lost, then I drove off.

I don’t know what the solution to the problem of police corruption, because it’s just part of a huge web that has become the system of operations here. In order to get something done, depending on the situation of course, like having your social security card processed in five days instead of 20 in my case, you are expected to pay a bribe or a “donation,” depending on how you look at it. The money collection doesn’t just stop with an ordinary traffic cop, either. A percentage of that collected money goes to his chief, who then hands out some change to his superior, and up the chain it continues. I suppose the entire traffic police department could be fired, replaced by a supposedly more professional force that will not tolerate bribery, as Georgian President Saakashvili did about a year ago. But who would issue that order? I wouldn’t expect something like that coming from President Kocharian or anyone else reporting to him, including the mayor of Yerevan (who the president appoints). So the system for now at least stays in place, so long as “vochinch” continues….


JLD said…
Great post! I witnessed this type of bribery take place on a daily basis while I was in Armenia. Failure to comply with paying off a police officer can result in your car being conviscated, tickets for 'not wearing your seatbelt' or 'not having your papers in order'.

This problem has many sources. Many police officers have to bribe their way into the police force and are poorly paid once they are given a job. Thus, bribes are perceived to be almost necessary by them to pay back the loans they had to take out to bribe the police to get the job.

It is a vicious cycle and it is going to take courageous leadership in Yerevan to implement the necessary changes. That leadership simply is not there.
Anonymous said…
You can also get fined for wearing a seat belt. It happened to the poor fellow driving the car we were in. And, one unfortunate cab driver was fined simply because he had passengers, which according to the police officer, who stopped the cab, entitled him to a certain amount of the money the cab driver would be making that evening. Looking at us, the passengers, and then at the cab driver, he sternly said to him with his hand extended, "Pogh es sheenoom, eendz el door!"
Anonymous said…


You should have thrown in a few good swear words in English that he probably wouldn't have understood just for good measure.

At least when you got pulled over back in Boston it was usually for good cause, even if the cops acted like A-Holes.

Maybe you should make up your own version of one of those yellow, triangular "Baby on Board" style signs that says something like, "I'M NOT PAYING!" You could start your own movement, and begin selling them to other motorists.

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