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4 Aug, 2009 05:09

Take a bus trip – put your life at stake

After a series of minibus crashes, taking a ride in Moscow is becoming a game of Russian roulette. The authorities are blaming bad driving, but the operators say it is because they cannot get qualified staff.

An everyday ride went horribly wrong in the Moscow region. Twelve people were injured – one of them seriously, breaking her back – after a minibus full of passengers suddenly crashed into a roadside ditch on Monday morning.

“According to witnesses, the crash happened because of the driver’s inattention. He was counting fare money while driving,” said police officer Vladimir Tomchak.

Monday’s incident is the latest in a whole string of minibus crashes in the last few months. In most of them drivers were blamed for reckless driving. However, this doesn’t seem to have made the demand for public transport any less, as for many it is the only way to reach their destinations.

Russians usually associate long queues with Soviet times, but for many Muscovites queues are still an everyday sight as they wait for a private minibus called a “marshrutka”.

Transport companies claim they have very strict requirements for the drivers they employ, and it matters little to them where their employee comes from, as long as he’s qualified to do the job.

However, Dmitry Babushkin from Moscow received the scare of a lifetime going home in a marshrutka that was operated by a migrant.

“The driver was talking on the phone in some foreign language. Then he started gesticulating wildly with both hands as if explaining something. And all that happened at quite a speed. When I got out I thanked god I was alive,” Dmitry said.

After that Dmitry dialed the public transport hotline and reported the incident. The next day the unprofessional driver was sacked.

This story follows a wave of public discontent on the professional qualities of marshrutka migrant drivers – those from the CIS countries, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The Moscow transport authorities came up with a suggestion for bus companies to slash their foreign workforce. This is something the companies see as unfair, especially given that it seems difficult to find anyone to replace them with.

“If only migrants were occupying someone’s place, those with Russian passports, then it would’ve been understandable. But Muscovites – even those who know their area well – just don’t want to take up this difficult job. And we have a great shortage of workforce,” explains Lyudmila Kozlova from the Avtoline transport company.

Human rights activist go even further and point out that transport companies have only 10% of migrants among their workers. And it is not necessarily foreigners which provoke crashes.

“They’re not talking about a low professional level of drivers and that requirements for them have been downshifted. They’re not trying to solve this problem. Instead, they take on a path of instigating anti-migrant policy,” believes Elena Burtina from the “Civil Assistance” human rights organization.

The authorities have not yet officially demanded a cut of the migrant workforce on such transport, but should that happen, they will have to think of who to replace them with and what to do with those fired. For those Muscovites preferring public transport to driving their own cars, it is the matter of who they are trusting their lives to which matters the most.