MOSCOW — Since the first traffic camera was installed in Moscow in 2008, a new kind of traffic violation has been born — license-plate camouflage. The cameras capture license plate numbers, which is how drivers who break traffic laws are identified. Tickets are then sent by mail. More than 60% of traffic tickets are now issued like this — which means that if you can hide your plate number, you can beat the system.
The first attempts to hide license plate numbers were primitive. People used paper or, more often, dirt and snow. That prompted fines for dirty plates to rise by a factor of five, and the punishment for covering your plates with material could include a license suspension.
The authors of the new traffic rules expected that these punishments would prevent people from covering their plates, but the number of people hiding them has in fact soared. The thing is, the fines for the things that cameras are supposed to catch — speeding, driving in bus-only lanes or parking illegally — also rose substantially. It seems that people made a calculation: The potential punishment for hiding their license plates wasn’t enough of a deterrent. They took their chances, hoping that camouflaging their plates would allow them to break other traffic laws without punishment.
Which isn’t to say that license-plate covering isn’t punished. Since last June, Moscow traffic police have given around 3,000 tickets for covered plates. “The official statistics are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Vyacheslav Lisakov, a representative of Russia’s Duma, or assembly, who heads the Committee for Construction. “I think that around 30% of violations are given tickets, and more and more people are doing it — especially in Moscow.”
Moscow is Russia’s leader in video surveillance cameras, with more than 700 around the city. It is also the only Russian city with paid parking, which many residents have protested against, and the parking is monitored by mobile cameras mounted in patrol cars. Moscow also has a well-used system of bus lanes that are policed by cameras.
Even enforcers break the law
Experts say that the problem is getting increasingly worse. Even those who are supposed to be defending the law are breaking it: Every day, there are cars with hidden plates parked at the prosecutor’s and other government buildings. There have been at least three highly publicized instances when drivers of patrol cars with mobile cameras have parked in no-parking areas and then covered up their license plates.
In Moscow — Photo: Francisco Anzola
The Moscow police have explained that they are preparing to test several different kinds of traffic cameras that are supposed to be able to see through camouflage techniques. Regardless, experts say that the government is losing the battle against traffic violators — at least for now. “There’s a feeling of anything goes. Everyone drives illegally,” says Lisakov.
Some people think that the government is actually pushing people to drive illegally. Others believe that the police are simply not up to the task of enforcing traffic rules. As of now, no legislative changes have been successful in curbing the illegal driving practices of Muscovites.
Moscow’s attempt to substantially raise the fines for covered license plates were thwarted when the Russian Supreme Court ruled the efforts unconstitutional, leaving the fine at around $20. Regional authorities also hurried to add that the fine has rarely been levied, because a new kind a vandal has appeared: One who goes around parking lots covering plate numbers. The innocent drivers would then get a ticket.
The transportation department came up with a novel idea: Inspectors could patrol the streets and remove plate coverings from cars. The problem is that the department only has 70 inspectors, and they only work in the city center.
And there’s yet another hole in camera system that authorities need to fix: Cars that come from abroad and have foreign license plates are not in the system at all, which means the driver of a car with a foreign license plate can do just about anything without fear of being caught. The police have a plan to require all foreign cars to register at the border, and those who are caught on camera would be required to pay the fine upon leaving the country or they would not be allowed back in to Russia. But it’s still unclear when this plan might be put into place, or how effective it would be.
Even Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has weighed in on the issue, ordering the police to work with the telecommunication ministry to develop a radio chip to be embedded in new license plates — which would allow police to gather information about cars without stopping the drivers. Another question would be how to get the chips into Russia's 50 million vehicles. It’s possible that by the time that is figured out, clever drivers would have found a new way to trick that technology as well.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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