MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Tuesday pledged to cut traffic privileges for officials, who routinely bypass Moscow's notorious traffic jams by ignoring basic rules of the road and even driving into oncoming lanes.
The privileges are a strong irritant for Muscovites, who have increasingly expressed their discontent with Putin's policies and widespread government corruption, endangering his chances of sweeping into a third term as president after March 4 election.
Traffic in Moscow gets routinely stopped every day to clear the road for the speeding motorcades carrying Putin, President Dmitry Medvedev and even visiting foreign dignitaries. Roads can be closed for as long as an hour in the anticipation of the motorcade to flash past. Irritated Muscovites express their frustration with the passing officials by honking their horns.
In a visible attempt to appease the growing discontent with Russian bureaucrats and bigwigs, Putin on Tuesday promised to make a "drastic cut" in the number of officials entitled to traffic privileges to "a few dozens," Russia news agencies reported. Putin was having a day off from his duties on Tuesday, meeting with his campaign representatives.
There are currently nearly 890 officials in Moscow who keep blue flashing lights on their vehicles, allowing them to ignore traffic rules. The expected cut would not affect Putin himself, prime minister, parliament speakers and a few other top officials.
As Moscow roads are getting busier, the blue flashing lights have become a metaphor for corrupt officials abusing their powers. Activists have over the recent years named and shamed scores of officials and top executives for using the privileges that they're not even entitled to.
Road accidents involving cars with special privileges have caused public outrage in recent years. A deadly collision in Moscow's southwest in 2010 when a car of a top oil executive killed two female passengers in a car in an oncoming lane led to a boycott of the oil company's gas stations. The oil executive was cleared of charges, but activists insisted that he had jumped into the oncoming lane, crashing into the passing car.
Meanwhile, Russia's outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday warned of increased violence in North Caucasus ahead of the presidential vote.
An Islamic insurgency has spread across that region since two separatists wars Russia fought in Chechnya. Medvedev said that insurgents could use the March vote to increase the pressure on Russian authorities, and asked officials at the country's spy agency FSB to be vigilant and prevent "insurgents' provocations."
For the first time in years, Russians are challenging the control of Putin, who was previously president from 2000 to 2008 and has since been prime minister. On Saturday, as many as 120,000 people turned out for the third and perhaps largest mass demonstration since Putin's party won a parliamentary election Dec. 4 with the help of what appeared to be widespread fraud.